Joe Winter
Special to the Catholic Herald

Editor’s note: After writing this article, Winter, a freelancer, was unable to locate Mike Helmberger for a photo. Winter believes Helmberger is currently homeless.

HUDSON – When a local lifelong Catholic considers most everything currently in his life, he’s at quite a loss. Still, he is persevering, and when not in the hospital, he is even praying at chapel at least once a day.

Just when it was looking like things were re-opening for Mike Helmberger and his music – both instrumental and vocal – and his worship, he was injured and ended up in a long rehab stint.

A versatile musician, Helmberger loves to sing Gospel, hymns, show tunes, swing, big band, Frank Sinatra, Josh Turner and many others, these days in karaoke or open mic with a mix-and-match band.

Earlier in life, he won a prestigious battle of the bands-type contest in the St. Paul area and was interviewed by the local newspaper for its front page. He even got some TV air time.

He says that is a big feather in the cap of someone who is technically listed as a vulnerable adult. Helmberger once bunked with a retired diocesan priest, Fr. Virgil Heinen, at his Hudson apartment, as Helmberger had a set of needs – medical, financial, even musical – to address.

Despite problems with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and related comorbid disorders, Helmberger can listen to a singer and instantly peg him as something like a “high second tenor,” phrases that not even all band leaders can roll off their tongues.

Helmberger is searching for places to perform, but karaoke has died off for the most part in the Hudson area, and even now as it is making an initial comeback of sorts, is hard to come by. Enthusiasts might have to travel, which can be problematic, even though he has not hesitated to get on his bike and go that far, even into the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities, to get in his church time and his tunes, Helmberger said.

Such gigs are half of the nights they used to be even in places that have brought it back, and there is precious little of a crowd to play to, and play for, as the virus keeps people away even if they yearn for their crooning.

He was chagrined when told about the newest gig that has finally opened up – part-time at one of the main music clubs in western Wisconsin – but only attracted five people.

Worship, his other love, was curtailed for months, although he made it a point to get to St. Patrick’s Parish daily and spend about an hour praying in the chapel, which was open 13 hours a day during even the worst of the pandemic and remained spacious enough not to violate social distancing rules.

That was in spring, before the accident. Helmberger said he still made time to talk with a couple of other regulars there when they all got together, even though such outings were unplanned and spontaneous – he might say providential. They discovered they had many things in common, such as work histories, with each having a series of jobs from factory work to over-the-road trucking. They also shared prayer styles.

When the 8 p.m. closing time for both the church front doors and the chapel was drawing near, he made sure to hightail it over and take one or more of the several rosaries in his old truck and make the fullest use of it, when the truck was working well.

Even as churches finally have opened up, but at only 25 percent capacity, there with Helmberger and others was this internal fear that it might be their last service attended because of the virus, and almost all that time has been in a quarantine of sorts because of his long rehabilitation process.

Back to the music, Helmberger was thinking of setting up shop with his acoustic guitar on Locust Street in Hudson’s downtown and playing for the many people who strolled by the popular area and its shops, sitting on the curb or doorstep and entertaining as a solo act with a big floppy hat for tips.

However, even though others had done this before his brainstorm, Helmberger was cautioned that this might run afoul of stay-at-home rules in effect at that juncture. It wasn’t that way before the virus, when he had a job cleaning a highway rest area and was known to sing on the job.

Helmberger has toyed with the idea of forming his own band, and maybe even playing all the instruments himself and then putting it all together for YouTube through the magic of mixing in studio.

But then there were those “dogs of doom.” He was chased by two canines and fell hard, breaking several bones in his leg and arm. There were surgeries and healing at Regions Hospital, then rehab at the Christian Community Home, which was followed by a month or more at home with his hurt leg propped up and arm kept by his side.
Mounting medical bills threaten to leave him homeless.

“I felt like everything I loved was taken from me,” he said.

But there were avenues for creativity. Helmberger played in both places, for the nurses and the other residents – and they were fully in tune spiritually, he said. This was after his guitar was kind of brought in the back way, and his arm slowly got to the point where he could strum again, if only certain chords. First easy, then something even an expert might consider a challenge.

He did think the worship services that were streamed in and shown in a gathering area were just a bit too modern, when he wished for the traditional hymns in an actual church.

But good things can come, he said. Fr. John Gerritts, pastor at St. Patrick’s, had brought him some very warm socks/slippers last Christmas, then at the height of his rehab, also stopped in with summer footwear.

For now, Helmberger has seen ongoing complications with the status of his unemployment compensation, is once again off the grid and likely on the verge of being homeless. Even his truck, which has been in the shop for weeks and was a place he could sleep, turned out to need a much more costly repair.

Still, he’s trying to be thankful this holiday season.