Performance of a lifetime
By Karen Mahoney
Special to your Catholic Herald
KENOSHA – While many of their classmates were sleeping late and hanging out with family over Christmas break, 31 members of the Kenosha Catholic Youth Organization band and 23 chaperones gathered a lifetime of memories in Italy.
From Dec. 26 to Jan. 5, the group traveled to Rome where they spent 10 days giving performances, including the New Year’s Day parade in St. Peter’s Square, and touring the region’s ancient sites.
“We performed for the pope right before the annual New Year’s papal blessing,” said CYO director, Matt Garza. “It was a very big deal. It was incredible to be among the thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square when he gave his blessing; it was just an awesome experience for all of us.”
In his fifth year as director of the CYO, Garza said the band typically travels each year to locations throughout the United States, but this was their first overseas trip.
The journey to Italy was a musical workout, a cultural exchange and a celebration of the band’s 70-year history. The Kenosha CYO Emerald Knights Band and Guard is the oldest marching band of its kind in the United States. The organization originally formed from 10 parishes of Kenosha: Holy Rosary, Mount Carmel, St. Anthony, St. Casimir, St. George, St. James, St. Mark, St. Mary, St. Peter and St. Thomas.
The Kenosha organization consists of several bands: the concert band, summer band, marching band and color guard. There is also a junior marching band.
Students pay a yearly membership fee to be part of the 501 3C non-profit organization and are required to raise their own funds to attend all contests and activities.
While visiting Vatican City seemed appropriate for an organization with Catholic roots, the decision to go followed a written invitation directly from Rome.
“I tell everyone that it was the result of a random letter in the mail,” admitted Garza. “I took the idea to the board and they loved it. We investigated travel costs and began extensive fund-raising for this.”
Each student paid his or her own way, although they had two years’ worth of opportunities to raise additional funds during the school year through tag sales, Milwaukee Brewer fund-raisers, living Christmas cards and other band-sponsored projects.
“We were worried because it was raining so much,” Garza said of New Year’s Day in Vatican City. “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 stopped long enough for them to march to St. Peter’s Square. “
After marching, the band stood under archways, waiting to perform between the papal blessing and the New Year’s Mass and again the rain poured. Once more, Divine intervention; the rain stopped just in time for the band to perform.
“It started again after they finished,” said Garza, adding, “We couldn’t have planned it any better.”
For one student, the trip took an exciting albeit nerve wracking turn. According to St. Joseph High School graduate, 19-year-old Ben Hughes, he 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 the Vatican 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 afterwards because I would have been too nervous that I would make a mistake.”
While he may never know why he was chosen over others in the church that day, Hughes remembers it as the culmination of a wonderful trip.
“It was overwhelming really; here I was baffled about the architectural feats that people did thousands of years ago with the buildings and sculptures and admiring the beautiful country, and then I was asked to read,” he explained. “It was rather shocking and afterwards, I just felt like nothing could spoil my day.”