She doesn’t recall shaking knees or quivering hands as she lowered her fingers onto the keyboard the first time, and then, all at once, she felt the deeply resonating swells reverberating through the small group assembled for morning Mass.
Members of the parish stood riveted as they sang along with the organist playing the opening hymn, the rich sounds of the traditional music surrounding them.
The organist was just 13 years old.
More than six decades later, Rose Marie “Cookie” DelConte still enjoys hearing her music fill the church and shows no signs of retiring as organist and choir director of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary and St. Therese parishes in Kenosha.
“My piano teacher played the organ at Holy Rosary and told me that she thought I would be good to play the organ,” said 81-year-old DelConte “I would be at church and watch her put on the different stops, but I never had organ lessons. I learned to play by the sounds and watching — and by a real good German priest we had who played the organ there. I watched him with the stops he put on and then I self-taught myself to use the pedals.”
Initially, DelConte was silent as she played; a cantor sang the Mass parts, but after the cantor retired, she had to learn to sing.
“I had to learn to open my mouth,” she said, laughing. “I am an alto, though, I recently had a stroke and my voice isn’t as high as it was before. Most of the organs now have transposers, so it is much easier for me to sing the parts.”
Throughout the 68 years DelConte has placed her fingers on the keys, she has performed and sung for weekend, daily and holy day Masses, as well as choir rehearsals, funerals and weddings. In addition to her own parish, she is a familiar face at St. Peter, Mount Carmel, St. James and St. Anthony parishes.
“I love to play at weddings, and I remember when I was around 14, either the priest or our school principal would come and pick me up from school so I could come and play for a funeral Mass and then they would take me back to school” she said. “I felt so honored to be asked to play the organ and didn’t realize that I would get paid for it – I had no idea that it was an actual job.”
DelConte credits her late father for encouraging her musical prowess. He was a musician and owned a gas station in Kenosha, trading gasoline for his daughter’s music lessons.
She jokes about her nickname, “Cookie,” as it is the only name by which most of her friends and family know her.
“I was the first born and my parents could not decide whether my mother’s mother would be my first name or my father’s mother’s name,” she explained. “In the end, it would be my dad’s mother’s name that went first, ‘Rose,’ but it took awhile and by the time I got my real name, all of the kids called me ‘Cookie’ and everyone still calls me by that name.”
At age 16, she taught piano, and in 1951 married her husband James, and had five children, while continuing to teach music at Holy Rosary and St. Therese for 20 years. She also worked for 10 years at American Motors Corporation and worked as a teller and bookkeeper at Brown National Bank and American State Bank in Kenosha.
She attended Carthage College to earn her K-8 teaching certificate but, due to her husband’s illness in 1986, she was unable to complete her bachelor’s in education. She did, however, earn a certificate to teach music.
“My husband passed away six months ago and I took care of him for 27 years, after a doctor made a mistake in his treatment. At one point, he was doing so well that I was able to bring him to Europe with me,” she said in a July interview with the Catholic Herald. “He recovered from esophageal cancer and was doing very well until I had a stroke just before Thanksgiving last year. He went downhill after that and passed away. It has been so difficult, but I was blessed to have him for 62 years of marriage and have five kids, 14 grandchildren and 15 great grandchildren. I was blessed with a beautiful family.”
According to Kathy DelConte, who is married to Rose Marie’s son, Michael, her mother-in-law is a remarkable woman, and is still amazed that she will host large parties for various holidays with more than 100 guests while taking care of her parish responsibilities.
“She will have all these people here and would suddenly get up and leave to play the organ in church and then come back to tend to her big party,” she said. “It is a big thing to host a party, especially ones that large. There is a lot of work to do and she made all of the food, too. Other times, we would be celebrating a birthday or anniversary and the doorbell would ring, she would leave and go into the living room and practice for a wedding and when the people left, she would continue with her party.”
As a liturgical musician and member of St. James Parish, Teresa Hill has played her violin for Masses and various ceremonies with DelConte.
“I have played with her for weddings many times,” she said. “She is a delightful woman and been at Holy Rosary forever. I have also played for confirmation Mass at St. Mark’s with her and she is an amazing musician and quite the busy lady. I don’t know how she does everything she does and managed it all with caring for her husband, too.”
In addition to DelConte’s responsibilities as organist, choir director and caregiver for her sister, she remains involved with the Serra Club, Shubert Music Club, Catholic Women’s Club and Holy Rosary Altar Society. She also directs the annual citywide outdoor Mass, and was named an during the 2001 Civic Veterans Parade and was honored as outstanding business woman by the Italian Business Professional Association last September.
“I always tell people I don’t waste time when I do things, and you can manage to fit everything in that you need to do,” she said. “I just feel blessed that I was able to do all that I have done, and it helps that I am very strong in my faith and have been so for a long time. I would never keep a job for so many years if it wasn’t good for my faith. It is no big deal for me to do things for church – I would do anything for the church. I don’t like to brag about myself and truly feel thankful to God everyday for keeping me going.”