Tuesday, June 27, 2000

Church musicians bond for life through music

        COVINGTON — Meet the Rolling Stones of church music. For 30 years, Mother of God Church's folk ensemble has played during Mass. That's long enough to witness both the first and second coming of bell bottoms.

        What accounts for the members' dedication? How do they find the time? And how do they live down those frumpy outfits from the '80s?

        These are the questions you get when you've been on stage for so long.

        “I'm just here for the cake,” jokes trumpeter Tom Hampel, to laughter from his compatriots.

        Therein lies the group's charm. Practice sessions are shot through with an easy sociability; every birthday is celebrated with a homemade cake.

        One singer made all the dresses for a guitarist's wedding. Two musicians were pregnant at the same time, continued performing while quite large, and had their babies a day apart.

        The togetherness pays off on stage. In keeping with their contemporary sound, the group likes to experiment with new takes on Catholic liturgy. At the same time, they know each other so well that a song can be extended or a verse changed with a mere glance between the pianist and lead guitarist.

        “This group, they take risks,” says Lisa Duesing, 23, whose mother is a member and who has observed the group her whole life.

        The ensemble consists of singers Connie Krebs, Pam Gongola and Melanie and Betty Trenkamp, with Cindy Duesing on guitar, Jack Richter on piano, Jim Penman on congas and rain stick, Paul Sketch on percussion, Kenny Bierschenk on trumpet, Debbie Schulenberg on flute and Mr. Hampel on bass, trumpet, banjo and harmonica.

        They remember when guitars at Mass were shocking to conservative parishioners.

        “They were not real accepting of these young kids playing this hippie music,” Melanie Trenkamp recalls.

        That came after about four years. Today, Mother of God is a vibrant parish with an eclectic congregation of downtowners and suburbanites. There is even a community of deaf parishioners.

        The future was not so bright 30 years ago. Located on Sixth Street in Covington, Mother of God was feeling the effects of urban blight. The wrecking ball loomed.

        The Rev. Bill Mertes, then parish priest, launched a campaign to save his church. Key to the strategy was attracting young people. To meet their desire for social action, Mother of God helped start the Parish Kitchen, Covington's primary preparer of meals for the homeless.

        Father Mertes also created an alternative to all-organ, all the time. The folk ensemble now plays every Sunday at 11:30 a.m., while an earlier Mass features traditional music.

        At last Wednesday's practice session, the musicians reflected on their chemistry and staying power.

        They don't have big egos, someone said. They make music for others as an expression of faith, said another.

        The congregation responds with enthusiasm and suggestions. The musicians grow together.

        Karen Samples can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or at ksamples@enquirer.com.


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