HAMMOND – St. Casimir parish, founded in 1890, has been the spiritual and educational home for many ethnicities. The faithful are welcomed with the parish’s logo and slogan, “Wiara, Esperanza, Love” – the first word meaning faith in Polish, and the second translated from Spanish as hope.
On Aug. 6, the celebration of Mass featured an arrangement of traditional Mexican instrumentation, raising a festive sound that was not performed by seasoned musicians, but rather a group of novice players. These students – mainly youth and young adults – presented their new-found abilities before God and their fellow parishioners after completing a summer crash course.
“I played the guitar, and my little brother played the trumpet, and we really just played the songs we learned from my beloved teacher,” said St. Casimir parishioner Gabriel Magallanes, 13. “My other brother got me into it, and I’ve been playing for like a year and a half; my (experience) goes deeper though.”
Before any of the aspiring players brought to church their harp, guitar, guitarron, trumpet, vihuela or violin, they had to learn the basics of musical notation, how to locate the notes on their instrument and generally gain the confidence to play together before a congregation. For 15 years, such instructional efforts have been coordinated by a seasonal visitor with a passion for music.
From Guadalajara, Mexico has come Gaudencio Martinez, who has been a residential instructor spending his summers at St. Casimir. Working in Spanish he conducts what parishioners call a “crash course” in music but connects the tones to the cultural expression from the predominantly Catholic country.
“Thirty-five years ago, I started playing instruments,” Martinez said. “I like to help children, so instead of occupying themselves with (electronics) they can do something different in the summer.
He added, “Yes, we feel very good about the (summer music) program.”
At St. Casimir the pastor and associate team of Father Eduardo Malagon and Father Stephen Gibson are bilingual. After Father Gibson presided at a Sunday evening Mass on Aug. 6, he then gathered with musicians and their parents in the St. Casimir gymnasium after Mass, congratulating the participants.
Father Gibson explained that he encountered Martinez at a music and cultural center when he was visiting Guadalajara.
“All the teachers gathered there, and I explained to them that I would love someone to spend their summers teaching the children,” said Father Gibson.
The Hammond priest noted Martinez’s connection to a celebrity. “Vicente Fernández (a famous Mexican ranchera singer) was his sponsor or godfather in church.”
Family and friends joined in hearing the Word and the reception of the Holy Eucharist and then songs arose filling up the church and its tall nave.
Maria Garcia watched as her seven-year-old son strummed his guitar during Mass.
“Moses wants to learn the guitar and I think this is a great opportunity (to participate in) this summer,” Maria Garcia said. “He learned a lot; I’m surprised he learned so quickly ... When they (stay) away from the TV and video games it’s great to me.”
Her two daughters, Marlene Garcia, 23, and Jackie Garcia, 19 are St. Casimir and Bishop Noll Institute graduates. On the performance day, they were traveling home from World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal.
“My kids love St. Casimir; they feel like it’s home here and (like) when Father Steven offered the music class here,” Maria Garcia said.
“I think that seeing them playing the instrument is seeing them pray two times,” she added.
Moses Garcia said he’s learned the chords “well” on his diminutive guitar but had to find his way through some performance anxiety.
“I do feel a little nervous because I’m a little sensitive,” he explained. “So, I try to listen, but my heart beats fast … Actually, things went pretty well.
Parishioner Natalia Gallegos, 14, is a seasoned musician looking for playing opportunities. Her siblings also share in her experience as members of Mariachi Santa Maria of East Chicago, which Martinez founded.
“I just wanted to learn more songs and practice so I wouldn’t forget how to play,” said Gallegos. “I’ve been playing the violin for 5-6 years.”
Her little sister, Karolina Gallegos, 8, participated with the musicians at Mass, bringing with her three years of guitar experience.
Gabriel Magallanes, said “Maestro” Martinez, provided one-on-one instruction from Monday through Thursday, since classes began on June 12.
“He would help out each person and go to the next one, “Gabriel Magallanes explained. “He assigned each of us something, then he’d come around until the time was finished.”
Harp player (and owner) Manuel Lopez, 30, has been involved with Mariachi since he was seven years old. He called his new focus on the large 32-string instrument his “next logical step.”
Lopez said that “every one of the students did great on their own accord.”
He also praised Martinez’s leadership, which delivered harmonious results in a brief time. “I feel the coordination was really good … Gaudencio is a fantastic musician, and he has helped out generations of people,” said Lopez.
As for the “Maestro,” who was preparing to return to Mexico, Martinez reflected on his favourite accomplishments as an annual visitor to the Region. He looks forward to returning next year.
“I like seeing the first generation of Mariachis here,” said the father of two children, each of whom is not a musician. “You don’t obligate them; I try to convince them that they can play.”
Caption: Gaudencio Martinez (right), a native of Mexico, strums his guitar along with a group of novice musicians who perform liturgical songs during a Sunday evening Mass on Aug 6. at St. Casimir in Hammond. The instrumentalists and singers ranging from young children to seniors began training in June with Martinez, who has brought his musical crash course to St. Casimir for more than 15 summers. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)