The Choirmaster and the Singers

Faith has been an essential part of the Liturgical Choir?s success for the last 25 years

Almost 25 years ago, newly hired Liturgical Choir director Rob Strusinski sat at a table in the student center displaying a large sign, "Singers Wanted." Rumor has it he also stopped students in the halls and in the Grill, asking if anyone could sing. "By the end of the semester, we had 40 singers," Strusinski recalled, "although, to be quite honest, some of them were almost non-singers. But they were willing and they showed up."

On Christmas Eve in 1987, the St. Thomas-St. Catherine Liturgical Choir sang at St. Peter’s in Rome during the Midnight Mass, the first American youth choir in recent history to be invited to participate in the event. "The Sistine Choir is always the principal choir for that Mass, but the Pope had requested a youth choir," Strusinski recalled, "and by that time we were fortunate enough to be a recording choir that had been reviewed nationally.

"It was a dramatic evening. There we were, standing at the back of St. Peter’s and as we processed down the center aisle, a student, Andy Davis, a big kid, grabbed me and said, ‘Rob, we sure ain’t in Ely any more.’" The choir sang "Hodie Christus Natus Est" (Christ is born today) and the recording of that performance closed the Mass broadcast from Rome for many years to come. The choir was invited back in 1997 to sing at Midnight Mass.

Singing through tears

"Perhaps our most transforming experience, however, happened in 1991 when we sang for the people of Poland at the cathedral in Warsaw for the feast of Corpus Christi," Strusinski said. "The Poles had not been able to celebrate their faith so publicly before and they had not heard a liturgical choir for decades. It was an electrifying community and in many ways a life-transforming experience for us. Later, at a parish church in Tarnow, we sang hymns in Polish. The entire congregation wept, then crowded into the aisles and sang with us through the tears. We were performing for people who were under religious oppression for most of their lives. Our being there heightened their sense of liberation and was electric beyond expression."

A liturgical choir is "about making music with people who share a passion about their faith. It’s a whole other level," Strusinski said. "Making music in church is more symbolic and mystical than community music in many ways, because it points beyond itself. A church choir does not draw attention to itself but to the presence of God in the midst of people. It inspires people to express the ultimate Christian affections of praise, thanks, sorrow, lament, love and joy."

"All the music we do is praying," said Tyler Volk ’03, an international studies major from Hazen, N.D. "When we sing the Christmas concert, for example, I really love the praying communication between the choir and the audience singing the responses. The spirituality, the music and the friendships I’ve made are all intertwined in the choir."

"I could not do this if my faith were not a large part of it," Strusinski explained. "For me, music ministry is acoustics for the sake of conversion and healing rather than just pleasing sounds. The purpose of church music is to be and to express the rituals that make up the Christian faith tradition. A lot of what we do is Eucharistic-based. It is also diverse because ecumenism is a value, so we sing in many languages and many traditions."

When Strusinski was hired by St. Thomas to begin a music ministry program in the chapel and to start a mixed chapel choir in 1977 — the year St. Thomas became coeducational — his job was a joint appointment in Campus Ministry and the Music Department, where he still teaches. Now students who perform in ensembles can earn a fine arts credit.

Holder of two bachelor’s degrees in music (one in musical education and one in organ) and two master’s (choral music history and voice) from the University of Minnesota, Strusinski also has done graduate work in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame. He grew up in St. Casimir’s Parish on the East Side of St. Paul where his choir often sang hymns in Polish. He taught music at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School in St. Louis Park before coming to St. Thomas. Strusinski is known as a funny storyteller and a fine tennis player (he ran the summer tennis camp at St. Thomas for 10 years and recently became accredited as a USPTA tennis teaching pro).

Taskmaster and perfectionist

He also is a taskmaster and perfectionist when it comes to music and combines humor with plain hard work. The choir has an average size of 55 (this year it’s 12 tenors, 9 basses, 18 sopranos and 15 altos). It rehearses three hours a week, and the full choir sings two Sundays a month at the Chapel of St. Thomas during the academic year. Smaller ensembles from the choir sing the other Sundays. The Liturgical Choir also performs at the Opening Day Celebration, Spring Baccalaureate and selected other liturgies like All Souls Vespers and Ash Wednesday. The choir also sings at various community celebrations, ranging from Arizona and Chicago to the Twin Cities. The choir sings in English and Latin and in what Strusinski calls "world music." That means the repertoire also includes Spanish, German, French, Italian, Eastern European and African music. Styles range from the classic Gregorian chant to Bach to American indigenous music, such as spirituals.

"I consider liturgical music the challenge of music-making of the highest order," Strusinski said. "The performance demands are continuous and strenuous and the amount and diversity of music covers many styles and periods. We have to be first rate."

Students grow together

Strusinski appreciates what the singers can accomplish as well as who they are. "The choir is a paradigm of the church," he said. "They are there for each other, work together, pray together and help each other. Students also grow together. That happens often in music, as the vulnerability of singing and praying together offers both challenges and opportunities. We begin each school year with a spiritual retreat, which is a very important part of our experience in becoming a unique community of our own. They become a close-knit group and very aware of the spiritual dimension of music in their lives. As a matter of fact, we have had about 16 marriages and a number of priests and ministers among choir alumni.

"This group was a family," said Rachelle Kramer ’01. "Entering St. Thomas as a freshman who wanted to meet good Christian people, I found the choir a dream come true. Not only were we able to use our gifts of music together, but we were able to use music for the praise and glory of God. Being in this group gave me a desire for ministry and to serve the faith community. Now, as a music director at another Catholic university, I am striving to create a choir much like I experienced at St. Thomas. I am extremely grateful to Rob for his love, dedication and inspiration."

Strusinski credits a great deal of support from St. Thomas in the course of the choir’s life. "We took our first overseas tour in 1983 when we went to the First International Music Festival in Limerick, Ireland. We couldn’t have done that without the support of John Nemo, then the academic dean at the college, who helped fund the trip. Happily, we took second place in that competition."

The luck of being at a school with active and well-known liturgical composers like the Rev. Michael Joncas, David Haas and Marty Haugen (all St. Thomas alumni) also helped. "When they made recordings, they asked us to sing with them, so we have made 8 to 10 LPs — the first was "Insong" in 1983 — and now record a CD each year. Over the years we have been given a generous budget. This includes not only travel funds (students typically pay half of their expenses) but also commissioning new music. For example, Joncas created a new Mass setting for our 25th reunion celebration on Oct. 14."

Touring is part of ministry

Touring is part of the choir’s ministry, Strusinski said. The choir has completed six international trips and the seventh will occur when it returns to Ireland in May 2002 after St. Thomas commencement ceremonies. Students will focus on Celtic spirituality then, another learning experience as on previous trips to Poland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and the Holy Land. "We sang spontaneously at every stop in the Holy Land," Strusinski recalled, "including the Beatitudes at the site of the Sermon on the Mount."

One choir member, Carin Lind ’95, wrote of singing spontaneously with choirs from Brazil, Korea and other countries at the outdoor theater in Caesarea: "There was no fighting, no violence, no language barrier, no sore feet and no war. We became one voice under God, and the power in that space could not have been stronger. The music slowly dissolved. People came to greet one another, hug and even share a kiss. For one moment in time, different people were joined by voices and sound. In a land of historical unrest we made peace and demonstrated God’s love. His angels sang through us, and to us. I will not forget the name of one song we sang that day: ‘Amazing Grace.’"

The choir has had strong individual experiences. Students usually stay with host families. They have toured Auschwitz. They sang the South African hymn "Freedom Is Coming" in Czechoslovakia. "In 1991, during that song, the entire audience was standing and clapping with us as we sang our hearts out in the beautiful church. We were celebrating the freedom that truly had come to this people. Singing in the choir is a ministry, not a performance," said Barb Uschold ’85.

Singing underground

But one stands out. "It was our first experience with the Soviet bloc in 1985," Strusinski recalled. "We had a little trouble at the Czechoslovakian border, though we thought we had planned ahead. One choir member was Romanian, and could not travel in a Communist country, so we left her at the West German border with plans to meet her in Vienna. But guards with rifles and dogs boarded our bus at the Czech border and took off two Americans who had grown beards and did not look like their passport photos. We remained calm. Soon the boys came back, clean shaven.

"But then the guards took all our records and scores, since no religious music was allowed in Czechsolovakia. They told us to pick it up in Vienna. That was when I started arguing loudly with them in German about not taking sacred music, with the kids behind me saying ‘Shut up, Rob. They’ll arrest you for sure.’ I lost, of course, since we were there unofficially as tourists, not as performers. So we sang in secret with no sheet music through the efforts of a Czech nun who accompanied us around the country.

"This was an experience you can’t get in a history classroom. Singing in Eastern European countries resulted in the best spontaneous, heartfelt and powerful experiences. The people appreciated liturgical music so much, and we even threw in a Carpenters’ song for encores."

Now, as it celebrates its silver anniversary, the Liturgical Choir has earned an international reputation and has enjoyed tremendous success.

"Rob Strusinski and the Liturgical Choir bless this community with the gift of music," said the Rev. Dennis Dease, president of St. Thomas. "They enrich our worship as they warm our hearts and move our souls. I am grateful for the dedication that Rob brings to his work. Clearly for him it is a labor of love. The students with whom he works have great admiration and affection for him. Personally, I could not imagine this university community without our choirmaster and his wonderful group. And I remain amazed, year after year, at the new levels of excellence they achieve."

The choir is a central performer with other St. Thomas choirs and musical ensembles at the annual popular Christ-mas concert to be held on Dec. 7 and 8 this year (see calendar inside of back cover). "Due to recent events, we discarded much of the music we had preselected for the concert this year," Strusinski said. "Late in September we decided on a theme of ‘Pacem in Terris’ (peace on earth) and the repertoire by all the choirs will reflect a peace-centered focus and music from around the globe."

The choir of heaven

Finally, here is vintage Strusinski on singing — even if you are not in a choir. Each Sunday at St. Thomas, a written reflection is distributed at all Masses. In one, Strusinski wrote: "Singing praise to God is the privilege and duty of all the baptized whether we sing well or can’t carry a tune. It’s simply not a matter of liking to sing or not. It’s the breathing in and out together and joining our voices together that is important. The goal of music is not comfort and entertainment, nor decoration or aesthetic, but rather the praise of God and the sanctification of all humanity — and making us fit for the choir of heaven."