Music – and the spirit – move him
It might be a bit of a stretch, but parishioners at St. Mary of Mount Carmel / Blessed Sacrament Parish might have to thank Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller for the beautiful music that resonates from the choir loft.
Peter Elacqua has been director of music since the 1970s. And part of the reason he loves music is that he was inspired as a youngster by those two musical icons.
“I began studying piano when I was in seventh grade, but I think my love for music originated much earlier,” Peter said. “When I was younger, I was always glued to the TV for Lawrence Welk and Mitch Miller shows. It was inspiring to watch how one man could pull together so many people through music.”
Peter has been pulling it together at Mount Carmel nearly every week for about 35 years. That includes weekend Masses and the major liturgical celebrations of Holy Week, Easter, Advent and Christmas. He also tosses in some weddings and funerals for good measure.
Peter leads the music ministry of about 50 singers and musicians when they are all together, which usually is for Holy Week, Advent and Christmas. Most members come to at least one Mass per weekend (sometimes two). Some are away at college or living in other cities and only return for holidays.
“We are lucky because all our choir members are so enthusiastic, supportive and dedicated,” Peter said.
Choir members range in age from teenagers to at least one person in her 90s.
Peter joined the choir when he was 13 years old because he loved music and church.
“It was the marriage of both for me,” he said.
He prospered under Helen Ehlinger, respectfully known to everyone as Miss Ehlinger.
“I was inspired by Helen Ehlinger, who was our parish organist for over 50 years and who was a legend in her time with a reputation and level of accomplishment that few Catholic organists had,” Peter said.
He said other inspirations were people who sang and performed locally.
“When I was still in high school, I would go to the Utica Opera Guild performances and was always inspired by Pasquale Caputo, who later became my teacher and friend, and by the many people who sang opera here. Roseann Giotto was one of those people and now she sings in our choir.”
When Miss Ehlinger left the choir loft, Donn Sullivan took over for two years. In 1978, Sullivan departed and Peter took up the mantle. He’s been a fixture in the rafters since.
“Father Gino asked me, Karen (before we got married) and my brother Vinny to lead a folk choir in the mid ’70s,” he said. “Karen and Vinny played guitar and I played piano and led the singing.
“Eventually the folk choir and the traditional choir merged, and I became the director of music for the parish. The folk choir began in 1976 and I became the director of music in 1978, so I have been somewhat in charge for 35 years and responsible for the entire music ministry for 33 years.
“Some people from that original group are still with us — Kathy Grandinetta (soprano), Marie Robilotto (flautist) and Angela (Barresi) Ferdula (cantor).”
Keep in mind that director of music is not Peter’s full-time job. He teaches French and Spanish at New York Mills Junior-Senior High School and at colleges in the area. He’s been married for 31 years and has raised a family.
How did he — and does he — fit it all in?
“I spend most of the weekend either planning liturgy, rehearsing with choir members or at Mass, funerals or weddings — directing, singing and/or playing,” he said. “Outside of the weekends, I probably spend about two to three hours a week reading about liturgy, pastoral music, checking out new music or new lyrics for traditional hymns.
Peter is even busier around the holidays.
“When Advent and Lent approach, I spend much more time preparing for the special celebrations, and for Holy Week, which takes so much more time and energy,” he said. “I have learned that every single second I put into those celebrations is worth the effort – for me as well as for others.”
Peter said he does it because he feels “a spiritual call to this ministry.”
“I have grown in it and it has become a reciprocal gift,” he said. “I do not see my work as a gift to the parish, I see this parish community as a gift from God to me. My work is my thank you to God and to the people here who continually overwhelm me with their support and love.”
That includes his wife, Karen.
“Karen is the only woman I know who can put up with my schedule so patiently and lovingly,” he said. “Holy Week and Christmas at our house revolve around church, and so do her dinners and all her plans. Luckily, she feels the power of this ministry as deeply as I do, and she never reproaches me for the time I spend in church work.”
With all the work and time that’s involved, Peter has considered passing on the torch to someone else — but not quite yet.
“Yes, I think about it often,” he said. “Though I am not yet ready to leave, it would be difficult for me to give up this ministry to someone who does not feel as strongly as I do about it.
“Working with choir, cantors, instrumentalists, priests and parishioners requires sensitivity and openness. It is not so much about performance as it is about prayer. I hope that the person who follows me would understand and embrace that.”
– Fran Perritano