GREEN BAY — A recent Mass at St. Jude Church opened with the hymn “Blest Be the Lord.” The congregation enthusiastically joined the choir in song, which brought joy to Anna Mae Petrusha, who has served in music ministry at St. Jude since the early 1970s.
“They love certain songs they know, like that one. I will look out to see people singing without books. If I put that one at the end of Mass, they will stay. (For) certain songs, they don’t care to stay too long,” she said with a laugh.
Petrusha, who plays the piano and organ, started as an accompanist, a role she continues to serve, but eventually, also moved into choir leadership and music planning. She works closely with Nancy Lemerond, music coordinator for the Quad Parishes of Green Bay, which include Annunciation, St. Joseph and St. Patrick, in addition to St. Jude. Petrusha is part of the Spirit Singers and G Force choirs at St. Jude.
“G Force is a guitar group,” she explained. “It’s a little different for me. I don’t have to be in charge. I just sit and play the piano.”
The piano in Petrusha’s home is from her childhood in Ironwood, Mich. She credits her love of music to her mother, who was a singer, and other family members. Petrusha’s father died when she was only 5 years old. Following his death, she moved with her mother and two siblings from a home in the mining area to a downtown house.
“I started going to Catholic school,” she said. “That’s when I started taking piano lessons. It was St. Ambrose School at that time.”
The Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity of Manitowoc served at the school.
“When you were a new (piano) student, you took lessons from the assistant sister,” she explained. “I can remember not being able to sit still. Sister said to me, ‘Anna Mae, you are going to fall off that bench.’ I was so excited.
“When I was in eighth grade, I had the main sister,” she added. “She told me, ‘It’s time to start taking organ lessons,’ so she had me playing the organ.”
Petrusha recalls her first time playing at a liturgy. She was in the 10th grade at the time. At Christmas midnight Mass, the sister who was the organist, had her sit in to play while she left the choir loft for holy Communion. Petrusha continued to play at Masses throughout high school and assisted during her two years at the junior college, which was housed on the third floor of the high school.
“We lived right behind the church. Once in a while, I would still be in bed and I would hear the church bells ringing,” she said. “In those days, I could get dressed, run across, get up to the choir loft, turn on the organ to let it warm up, get the music out and start singing. Today, I could never do that.”
In 1965, after graduating with a degree in education from Northern Michigan in Marquette, Petrusha began teaching third grade at Lincoln Elementary School in Green Bay. She taught at the school for 36 years.
When Petrusha first attended Mass at St. Jude Church the early 1970s, the 11 a.m. Sunday liturgy didn’t have music. She noticed the organ in the choir loft, so she volunteered to play some hymns.
“I could play and if people wanted to sing or not, that’s fine. I didn’t want to sing,” she said.
It marked the start of her nearly 50 years of music ministry at the church. Petrusha has also served as an accompanist at other area churches. She helps prepare music and accompanies at funerals, and weddings. She also plays for the Hmong Catholic Community Mass at St. Jude.
“In 2005, (the Hmong Catholic Community) asked me if I would play,” she said. “They are so much fun to work with. I don’t know what words I’m looking at, but I know the notes. I can play the notes. I can do the timing.”
Music ministry enhances her Mass experience, said Petrusha.
“When I pick something, I look at how it goes with the readings,” she said. “I will go through the readings and spot something, and think, ‘We have to use this song because it fits.’ Sometimes when you play for a funeral, people will say the music was so nice. I reply, ‘You chose such nice songs.’”
She enjoys finding new music for Mass. When Oregon Catholic Press releases CDs of new hymns, she will listen in the car during the drive to and back from the family home in Ironwood, which she owns. When Petrusha selects a new song, she plays it for the choir only once.
“They will say, ‘We like the way you teach it,’” she said. “Once they learn it, they’ve got it. If people see me in a restaurant writing something, I’m probably planning some music.”
Petrusha never wanted to be a performer in the spotlight, so she is thankful to be able to share her gifts through ministry. She plans to continue as long as possible.
“I just think of music and how it has taken me so many places,” she said. “When I think back to the kids’ morning Mass for our school, out at Our Lady of Lourdes (De Pere) for Christmas programs, all the places and people, I’ve enjoyed it. I will keep going as long as the choir wants me and as long as I enjoy it.”