Catholic Herald staff
When Kathy Turba reflects on more than a decade of directing the Diocesan Chorale, she remembers two contrasting performances from its 2006 tour of Italy.
“I think a singular time for all [of us who] travelled to Italy together was singing Beethoven’s “Hallelujah” from “Mount of Olives” for Mass in the grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica and then, on the other end of the spectrum, singing “Give Me Jesus” for Mass in a small chapel of St. Francis Basilica in Assisi,” she said.
Whether singing simple songs in humble places or majestic works in grand cathedrals, the chorale has shared the voice and spirit of the Diocese of Superior for nearly 20 years.
Turba, now retired, directed the chorale for the majority of that time.
“The singers in the chorale all bring with them a strong desire to sing as well as a love for and appreciation of our Roman Catholic liturgy,” she said. “This motivation always made them a joy to work with as they would welcome challenging music and were always eager to improve their vocal technique.”
Formed in 1999, the chorale’s first performance was at an Advent Vespers service at St. Francis de Sales, Spooner. The choir’s 39 members traveled far, sometimes from across the diocese, to perform together.
LaMoine MacLaughlin, director of the Northern Lakes Center for the Arts, Amery, and an all-around musician/writer/poet and theatrical director, was the chorale’s first director. He co-founded the choir with Fr. Gabe Baltes, a Benedictine monk and then-director of the Office of Worship who has since returned to Illinois.
“That was quite some time ago,” MacLaughlin said.
Interviewed by the Catholic Herald in 2010, Fr. Baltes said giving small-parish Catholics the opportunity to sing in a full choir was one reason to form the chorale. Also, the cathedral choir was struggling to prepare for major diocesan Masses – ordinations, Chrism Mass, the Rite of Election and other events – in addition to weekly liturgies, so the new chorale provided relief.
After MacLaughlin left the directorship in 2001, Turba, who also works as music director at St. Ann, Turtle Lake, took over. She served as chorale director until 2015.
“I was a member of the chorale from its inception under the directorship of LaMoine Mac- Laughlin,” Turba said. “At that time, he arranged for me to be assistant director (actually, that was to ensure that there would be a strong alto available to sing). As it turned out, that probably wouldn’t have been necessary, because there were sufficient singers, but as assistant I vocalized the choir at each rehearsal, with the result that when I took over, the singers knew a little of my leadership/directing style.”
After Turba retired, Sarah Lyons, former music director at Holy Family, Woodruff, briefly took over directorship of the chorale; when Lyons moved to Missouri, Turba came out of retirement to direct the February 2016 Vespers and Mass performances for the ordination of Bishop James P. Powers.
Hecimovich is the vocal and instrumental music teacher at the Bruce High School. He first directed the choir for the 2016 Chrism Mass, and he continues to serve in that capacity; he also leads community choral ensembles.
“We’re all in it together,” Hecimovich said of his role. “I’m the director, but there’s no one particular leader. I’ve very happy about that, and I hope everybody else is as well.”
The chorale has about 35 active members, although Hecimovich estimates there are around 60 registered members. Vocalists are selected through an informal recommendation system; auditions are not required.
The choir meets in Ladysmith every month, sometimes every other month during the slower summer season, to rehearse. Distance has always been one of the difficulties; some members travel two hours each way for practice, and four hours for performances in Superior.
“The diocese is so wide, so big, so that’s one of the main challenges,” Hecimovich added. “Once we get together, everybody’s having a great time.”
Since its inception, the choir has only had two accompanists. The late Jean Connolly, principal organist at the cathedral, accompanied the vocalists during and just after MacLaughlin’s tenure as director.
Turba’s sister, Mary Ament, music director at St. Francis Xavier, Merrill, has accompanied the Diocesan Chorale since Connolly left.
When Servite Sr. Cecilia Fandel moved back to the diocese from Chicago, she contributed her voice to the local church.
“I love to sing and haven’t been able to do so since I left Ladysmith in 1986,” Sr. Cecilia said. “When I retired back here, I looked at the three different groups that I could join. I chose the Diocesan Chorale because I haven’t been part of a chorale for religious music before, and also I wanted to be part of the larger diocesan church.”
Rodney Mahner and his brother, Karl, have been members of the chorale since the beginning. They were personally invited to join by the late Bishop Raphael Fliss, who heard the four Mahner brothers singing together at an event in Whittlesey.
The high points of Mahner’s years in the chorale include three performance tours in Europe – one in Italy in 2006; a second in Ireland in 2010; and last fall’s trip to Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic – and a more personal memory: In June 2001, the chorale sang for his wedding.
“How special is that?” he said.
Singing with the chorale has also become an intergenerational family tradition.
“My children have been watching me come and go for years, and that has piqued their interest so much that the middle two have now joined the chorale, as well. It is truly a joy to watch them sing along with us and to know they are also growing their faith while having the same kind of fun that I’ve been having for years,” he said.
Paul Birch, director of the Office of Worship, works with Hecimovich to select music for each event. He also sang with the chorale for years.
“I think that the Chorale membership exemplifies in a very positive manner a broader manifestation of our local church—which goes beyond our particular parochial affiliation (as vital as that involvement is),” Birch commented. “Our Diocesan Chorale is a good example of what we can do when we love something and work on nurturing it together under the leadership of our bishop. Beautiful things happen to us as individuals, to our relationship with God and each other, and in the wider world we’re all a part of.”
Feeding the faith
“Hemmed in prayer” is how Turba describes chorale rehearsals. The monthly meetings always begin and end in prayer, a “reminder of why we serve as ministers of music.”
Beyond reinforcing their relationship with God, prayer time also strengthens vocalists’ relationships with one another. Members share their concerns and prayer requests, and the group has become a close-knit, supportive family, despite the geographical distance between them.
Turba, who plans to return to the chorale as a singer in the future, also believes learning liturgical music is inherently prayerful.
“Studying music designed to facilitate worship tends to plant phrases and musical snippets that surface at times throughout one’s day and turn the heart’s focus toward God,” she said.
Choir members also keep the faith through retreats.
“The chorale has attended an annual retreat since 2011, most often at St. Anthony’s Retreat Center in Marathon City, where we focused on learning music for the upcoming year and taking time for reflection on our ministry,” Turba added.
For Hecimovich, the chorale’s passion for music and ministry is the best part of his job.
“Everyone is really, really passionate, and that’s something I strive for – everybody being passionate for spreading the Word of God,” he said. “We want to work hard … but still have fun.”