St. Augustine is credited with saying "To sing is to pray twice." That quote has proved to be a mission statement of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish. The Depew church has three musical groups which cover traditional, contemporary and even Polish music.
Interestingly enough, the Polish choir has its roots at the former St. Augustine Church, which merged with St. James in 2010 to form Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Instead of creating new traditions, the new parish kept the flavor of its previous entities.
"It's part of our identity," explained Susan Loniewski, organist for the Polish choir and traditional choir. "We still have Polish people over from St. Augustine's. There are people here who would miss it if we didn't sing it."
During the 8:30 Sunday morning Mass, the group performs one authentic, vintage Polish hymn during the offertory, such as "O Maryo przyja v ofierze," which describes Mary's friendship and sacrifice.
"It brings back a lot of memories for people. They grew up with them. They sang these in school," said Loniewski.
Members don't have to be or speak Polish to join the choir. Some members learn the language as they learn the songs.
Loniewski also leads Saturday's choir for the 4 p.m. Mass. It's a standard choir that uses many of the same members from the Polish choir. There are about 12 people between the two.
"I tell ya, this group is a good group. It's not a big huge group, but they have their heart in it. It's a real ministry to them," Loniewski said.
Barb Struebel, who plays guitar, and Maryann Knighton, the keyboardist, have been with the contemporary ensemble since 1986. The rest of the five-member core came together around 1992. Others have joined for short periods through the years. Younger members tend to move away once they get married.
"This group has been the nucleus," Struebel said about the core five. "There have been some that have come and gone for various reasons, either moving or - we lost our wonderful man who used to do the 'Alleluia verse.' He passed away."
The contemporary music that they choose comes from the daily lives of their members. Norma Hess, music teacher at St. Francis High School in Athol Springs brought in music she liked from the graduation. Sister Jean Sliwinski, brought some she heard with her Felician sisters. On the Feast of Corpus Christi, they played fitting songs such as "Let us be Bread," "Table of Plenty" and "Gather us in."
"For the Mass music, we're kind of limited by our pastor to doing the music that is in the (liturgical music) book. But, the music that we do before Mass or, sometimes, our meditation song may not be. I do a lot of music from the St. Louis Jesuits," said Struebel.
The group has some very trained musicians. Sister Jean used to teach music at Villa Maria College. Suzanne Hess is the trumpet player. "She is phenomenal," Struebel said.
"I'm lucky to have two very good musicians. I play guitar, but I'm more adding to it. All of us enjoy music; enjoy being able to sing at Mass," Struebel said.
Once a year, they go Christmas caroling, a tradition from Struebel's childhood of attending St. James Church.
"Since this group has its roots in 1992, we have gone caroling at a nursing home every Christmas and put on a little program for them. It's very rewarding to us as much as it is to the ladies and gentlemen at the nursing home," she said.
Even though the musicians and singers they do have are dedicated, the parish could always use more. The pastor, Father Lawrence Damian, will often hold a ministry drive to recruit people for the various ministries in the parish. Those who do sing often take part in the parish's other ministries as well.
"I would look in church and see who's singing. (Most) would rather sit and listen then be part of. We haven't had anyone new join us in quite a while," said Struebel.
She thinks back to those words of St. Augustine when asked why she continues.
"It might be trite, when you sing you pray twice," Stuebel said. "To me, music makes my prayer come alive. It just ads to my celebration of the Eucharist. We've always tried very hard to get people to be part of it. I remember when I was in the praise band. The director was a performer. His idea was that we were putting on a show. I'd always say, 'No. We're not putting on a show. We're trying to encourage the people to be part of the music.' I struggled with him on that for a while. He didn't have the liturgical background. The music isn't an add-on. It should be part of the whole experience, the prayer, the liturgy, bringing us to the altar together."
"It's a form of worship. It's worshiping in song. You're praying twice," Loniewski said, using those words of St. Augustine again.