Written by Karen Mahoney, Special to your Catholic HeraldThursday, 04 April 2013 07:44
St. Augustine said, “To sing once is to pray twice.”
Helen Simanek believes that.
“Music and singing is a prayer,” said the 85-year-old soprano. “I sing because I love it. I am grateful for the opportunity to sing in a group and sing good music.”
Simanek, a parishioner at St. John Nepomuk in Racine, has been singing in a church choir since she graduated eighth grade. On March 5, she not only celebrated her birthday, but marked 70 years of singing in the church choir.
The daughter of Italian immigrants who didn’t speak English, Simanek said she was baptized at St. Rita Church, Racine, because there was an Italian-speaking priest, there, but the family moved to St. John, a Bohemian church, when she was young.
When Simanek began, there were approximately 40 male and female members of the choir who rehearsed once a week and sang every Sunday during Mass. The choir sang as a group, but after Vatican II, cantors and soloists were allowed.
“I have been cantoring ever since they allowed them,” she said. “I still get enthusiastic about singing, but it is a little different excitement from when I was younger. We don’t have as many members and the music was a little more difficult back then. I liked the challenge of learning more difficult music, but it is still very enjoyable.”
Parish: St. John Nepomuk Parish, Racine
Favorite church hymn: “Ave Maria”
Favorite song: “The Sound of Music”
Favorite quotation: “Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you.”
Fred Bach, St. John Nepomuk liturgical minister enjoys working with Simanek and appreciates her kind, easy-going nature.
“Her voice has held amazingly well, her pitch is accurate, and the other sopranos, even the youngest ones, lean on her for vocal support,” said Bach. “She tries to be helpful in anyway possible. Helen has loved music since she was a little girl, joined the choir as soon as possible and takes her ministry seriously. She tries to expressively sing the words as a message, not as a chance to show off her talents.”
The choir, which sings at the 9 a.m. Sunday Mass has approximately 15 members. Simanek hopes others who enjoy music will join the choir and find it as rewarding as she does.
“I really like it and plan to continue until my health holds out,” she said.
“The only problem I have is that there are steep stairs to the choir loft and climbing those stairs at 85 isn’t the easiest for me to do any longer. But as long as I am physically able to do it, I will continue – and of course, as long as the choir is in existence.”
Bach has worked with Simanek for 22 years, and said her devotion to music increases each year.
“She has made sure she is at every rehearsal and when she has been sick or injured, she comes back to church the moment she knows it’s safe to do so,” he said. “She brings this fine example of faith and devotion to the Mass and the rehearsals, leads and strengthens others, and I believe avoids shows of temper on the part of a couple singers by her own quiet, good example.”
In addition to singing at St. John Nepomuk, Simanek sang with the SC Johnson Ladies Choir and mixed chorus from 1948-1960 when she was employed at the company.
“I didn’t want to stop singing in the choir, but I got married in 1960 and it was SC Johnson policy that women had to leave when you got married,” said Simanek.
“Later with the Equal Rights Amendment, they had to disband that practice.”
When the oldest of her four children was 16, Simanek returned to Johnson as a secretary and worked until her retirement.
“My husband Wencil, we call him Jim, had a cancer scare, and we were not sure if he would survive,” she explained. “I wanted to have some income, so I contacted Johnson’s to see if they would hire me again, and they called me the next day.”
After receiving a letter from Jeff Honoré the archdiocesan choir director in the early 2000s, Simanek decided to audition.
“I was just so thrilled that I passed Jeff’s test that he gave me,” she said. “I enjoyed singing in that choir so much. The music was very challenging and fun to do.”
Joining with other vocalists from the archdiocese, Simanek remembers performing at the cathedral on several occasions and remembers it as the highlight of her 70 years singing liturgical music.
“I didn’t stay in the choir very long because the commute got to be a lot for me,” she explained. “Another girl was commuting with me and she dropped out. I ended up going alone and didn’t like that – especially in the winter and in the dark.
“I missed the group very much, and really liked Jeff. He is still a great director.”
Honoré recalled Simanek as a talented singer “full of energy, spirit and quite a vocal range. When she auditioned she showed me, and we used her extreme high range in an arrangement that spring,” he said.
Simanek enjoys sewing, knitting and spending time with her four children and 13 grandchildren.
“God has been so good to me, and really, singing is like giving God’s gift back to him,” she said. “It is so important for me to share this gift.”