Emerald Knights in Italy
Kenosha News correspondent
While many of their classmates were sleeping late and hanging out with family over Christmas break, 31 members of the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) Emerald Knights Band and Guard of Kenosha and Racine and 23 chaperones gathered a lifetime of memories when they traveled to Italy.
In Italy from Dec. 26 through Jan. 5, the group first spent three nights in the Tuscany region, visiting jaw-dropping sites in Florence, Pisa and Lucca. Then they headed south to Rome, arriving there for New Year’s Eve and celebrating the birth of 2009 at the historic Roman Coliseum. After only a few hours of sleep, the musicians were up early to perform in St. Peter’s Square.
“We performed for the pope right before the annual New Year’s papal blessing,” said Matt Garza, CYO band director. “It was a very big deal and an awesome experience for all of us.”
Students in grade four through age 21 performed alongside talented bands from the United States and throughout the world.
n his fifth year as director of the CYO band, Garza said the group typically travels each year to locations throughout the United States. Past trips took the students to Disney World in Florida, Texas, Wyoming and Colorado, but the excursion to Italy was their first one overseas.
The journey was a musical workout, a cultural exchange and a celebration of the band’s 70-year history. CYO Emerald Knights Band is the oldest marching band of its kind in the United States. The organization originally formed from 10 Kenosha parishes: Holy Rosary, Mount Carmel, St. Anthony, St. Casimir, St. George, St. James, St. Mark, St. Mary, St. Peter and St. Thomas.
Garza received a letter roughly two years ago inviting the group to perform in the New Year’s Day event in Vatican City, and he brought the idea to the board of directors, which primarily consists of band members’ parents.
With encouragement from the board, the group began to undertake a fundraising effort that extended over two school years and made it possible for each student to pay his or her own way for the trip.
Their efforts were rewarded when they stepped off the bus in Vatican City on a rainy and overcast New Year’s Day morning.
“We were worried because it was raining so much,” Garza said. “We kept the students on the bus while we waited for the parade and tried to figure out what to do. The moment they stepped off the bus, the rain stopped, and (it) stopped long enough for them to march to St. Peter’s Square.”
After the band marched, the rain poured down again as members waited under giant archways to perform between the New Year’s Day mass and the papal blessing. After what seemed to be divine intervention for the second time, the rain stopped just in time for the band to perform.
“It (the rain) started again after they finished,” Garza said, adding, “We couldn’t have planned it any better.”
For one student, the trip took an exciting, albeit nerve-wracking turn. St. Joseph High School graduate Ben Hughes, 19, was in the right place at the right time when approached to do a scripture reading during the first Sunday Mass of the new year.
“I was sitting in the last pew at (St. Peter’s Basilica) with my friends. A security guard was asking us where we were from, they said Wisconsin, and I said Illinois, as I live in Wadsworth,” said Hughes, now a freshman at University of Illinois. “He asked me if I wanted to do the second reading, and I was just speechless — my heart literally skipped a beat.”
After a little prodding by his friends, Hughes followed the security guard to the front of the church where he received a few lessons on where to stand, how to walk to the altar and when to bow.
“I got to sit in the front by the choir,” he said. “My reading was the only English part in the all-Latin Mass. What I didn’t know until later was that my reading was broadcast all through St. Peter’s Square on large television monitors in front of thousands of people. I’m glad I didn’t know that until afterward because I would have been too nervous that I would make a mistake.”
Garza hopes to return to Italy one day, but this first CYO band trip always will be a beautiful memory. Despite the long hours traveling and performing, the students and chaperones were pleasant and considerate.
“It was absolutely one of the coolest things, we had smiles all along the whole trip from everyone,” he said.