Thirty-six faculty and staff retire from their St. Thomas careers this year, many taking advantage of the university’s 2010 Voluntary Retirement Program. Among them: coaches, chemists, carpenters, cooks and more. They’ve taught Spanish and social work and special education. Living history and teaching history, they’ve given dozens of years of service to the university community. It was impossible to write about all of them. One, however, enjoys a particularly high profile among students, alumni and the community alike, so we asked him to stop by for an interview. – Editors
Robert Strusinski ticks off a string of special memories he’s had as founding director of St. Thomas’ Liturgical Choir. One seems an apt metaphor for his 33-year career here:
It’s Christmas Eve, 1987. He’s lined up the St. Thomas Liturgical Choir on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Choir members gulp a bit at the honor: They’re the first American choir ever selected to sing at the pope’s midnight Mass. They still themselves and prepare to process into the seat of the Roman Catholic Church.
“So we’re standing there in two rows, shoulder to shoulder,” Strusinski said. “And the Swiss Guard, looking very stern in all its colorful regalia, is lining the steps. One of the students, Andy Davis, a big, bear of a kid from Ely, is standing next to me. It’s kind of stressful, really. And Andy grasps my hand – a gesture that’s not really characteristic for him – and whispers, ‘Rob, we sure ain’t in Ely anymore!’”
Indeed, Strusinski thought. His parents lived in Ely at that time, although he discovered his calling to sacred music growing up in St. Casimir’s, a Polish parish staffed by priests of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, on St. Paul’s East Side. His father’s sisters were professional musicians, and he played accordion and sang so sweetly as a kid that he often was chosen to sing at funeral Masses.
“I sang the Gregorian chant at those Requiem Masses. For every funeral, I got 25 cents and got out of class. What could be better?” Strusinski laughs.
When he was just 13 and the Catholic Church was on the cusp of revolutionary changes that would spring from the Second Vatican Council, he was tapped to enter Our Lady of the Ozarks Preparatory Seminary, the O.M.I. high-school seminary in Carthage, Mo. At home during the summer of his senior year at Our Lady of the Ozarks, he took organ lessons at St. Thomas with the late John Vanella, a 1964 St. Thomas alumnus who went on to a distinguished 40-year career as an organist and composer of sacred music.
The priests at Our Lady of the Ozarks decided that instead of attending another college Strusinski would enroll at Lewis College (now Lewis University), a Christian Brothers-directed institution with a minor seminary, St. Charles Borromeo, in Illinois. (The “other” college? You guessed it: St. Thomas.) At Lewis, he enjoyed a position as student music director and decided he probably wouldn’t follow the path to the priesthood. He left the minor seminary after two years and decided to return home. But he held on to his musical vocation.
Finishing his bachelor’s and two master’s degrees (Master of Arts and Master of Music) at the University of Minnesota, he held positions as choral director at St. Margaret’s Academy and Benilde High School (now Benilde-St. Margaret’s in St. Louis Park), music director at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Robbinsdale, music director for the Chimera Theatre in St. Paul and organist at St. Agnes Catholic Church in St. Paul. Then, in the fall of 1977, an opportunity arose at the College of St. Thomas.
Monsignor Terrence Murphy, St. Thomas’ president, was determined to have a liturgical choir for his newly coeducational institution. He decided that the director would have an appointment with two organizational homes: the Department of Music – which at that time was a “coordinate” department of St. Thomas and the College of St. Catherine – and St. Thomas’ Campus Ministry.
“Father Murphy saw liturgical music as a spiritual pursuit as well as an academic one,” Strusinski said.
Strusinski got the job. By the fall of 1977, Strusinski was recruiting new singers for the choir at table outside the Murray Hall grill. Forty students signed on. The following semester, choir membership was available for academic credit. Eventually St. Thomas would offer a major in liturgical music.
The choir grew steadily in size and quality – auditions have become quite competitive – and it now has about 65 members. The choir leads the congregation in song at Sunday liturgies in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, sings at celebrations throughout the academic year and ably represents St. Thomas on tour, mostly to Midwestern parishes, each spring. The choir also has traveled extensively abroad: to Ireland in 1983 and 2000; to Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1985; to Italy for its anniversary years in 1987, 1997 and 2007; back to eastern Europe in 1991, to the Holy Land in 1994 and to France in 2005.
Among Strusinski’s favorite memories of his years with the Liturgical Choir is a particularly profound education in world politics, the power of music and religious freedom during the choir’s pre-Velvet Revolution visit to Czechoslovakia in 1985:
“We were stopped by police – with guns! – at the Czech border,” Strusinski recalls. “Two of our guys had grown beards and didn’t look like their passports. So they were made to shave before they could return to the bus.” The guards then confiscated the choir’s sheet music and recordings before they could enter the country.
Although religious practice was illegal in Czechoslovakia at the time, Strusinski and choir members visited and sang for Cardinal František Tomášek, who was archbishop of Prague but under government house arrest. Later, they secretly sang a Bruckner motet, “Locus iste,” with a community choir in a barn on the Czech countryside.
“We didn’t know any Czech, and they didn’t know any English, but we both knew this beautiful piece,” Strusinski said. Translated from the Latin, its text describes the experience: “This place was made by God, a priceless mystery, it is beyond reproach.” In 1991, after the end of religious repression in Europe, the choir enjoyed large, appreciative audiences who wept, sang along and even invited the choir to lead the procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi.
Since 2005, the choir has embarked on a tour of charity – an annual concert to benefit educational and humanitarian organizations. The choir has raised more than $11,000 for a variety of educational programs and human services organizations throughout the world. This year’s concert benefited Hope Medical Clinics, community-based clinics working with the Catholic Church in Kasubi and Ndejje, Uganda. Last year the concert benefited a parish music school in Venezuela; other beneficiaries over the years have included the Music Department of Xavier University in New Orleans, which suffered major damage from Hurricane Katrina; the Genocide Intervention Network for its Darfur relief program; and Open Arms of Minnesota, an organization that prepares and delivers free meals to people living with serious and life-threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS, ALS and breast cancer.
While the Liturgical Choir is the brightest feather in Strusinski’s cap, another long-standing St. Thomas tradition is part of his legacy, too: the university’s annual Sacred Arts Festival, which Strusinski started in 1979 with Monsignor Murphy’s support. Inspired by the first renovation of the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas, the festival is a public celebration of sacred art and an exploration of faith and has featured art exhibits, musical and theatrical performances, literary readings, lectures and discussions and films.
Strusinski hasn’t decided yet where retirement will lead him next, so it’s a good thing music is an international language. Singing or swinging a conductor’s baton, could again turn up in Ely or the East Side or the Far East (he taught in Osaka, Japan, a few years back). Or you might find him on the tennis court (he’s a certified teaching pro). Like many retirees, he’s leaving all options open.
Aaron Brown, a 2005 St. Thomas alumnus who was one of Strusinski’s advisees and is now director of liturgy in Campus Ministry, has agreed to be interim director of the Liturgical Choir for the 2010-2011 academic year.
Liturgical Choir alumni will gather this weekend to honor Strusinski at a reception, 7-9 p.m. Saturday, May 15, in the third-floor lounge of Murray-Herrick Campus Center. Choir alumni are invited to sing with the choir after communion at the 11 a.m. Mass on Sunday, May 16, in the Chapel of St. Thomas Aquinas. Current students, faculty, staff and alumni will gather after Mass for a reception on the upper quad (rain site: Fireside Room, Murray-Herrick Campus Center).