Theresa Setter will retire after 40 years as the director of music at St. Mary Parish in Kenosha with her final Mass on Sunday, Aug. 28. (Submitted photos)
After graduating from UW-Whitewater in December 1981 with a bachelor’s degree in education and minor in music, Theresa Setter was asked to “try” the job of full-time director of music at St. Mary Parish in Kenosha, covering all eight weekend Masses.
“I have been ‘trying’ it ever since Jan. 1, 1982,” Stetter said.
On Aug. 31, Setter will sing her swan song after 40 years of leading the choir. She will direct her last Mass at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Aug. 28. Singers, musicians and former priests are invited back for this final celebration.
Her journey to a lifetime in music began way before her college years.
“I have been at this parish my entire life, and being involved in church music has truly been my vocation,” she said. “I took my first guitar lesson at 10 years old, sang in my Catholic school choirs and was especially drawn to church music.”
Setter said she grew up in a wonderful Catholic family where music was a large part of their lives. It was not uncommon for her mother to sing throughout the day while tending to her family. She also pushed her daughter to practice her guitar.
“That turned out to be a very good thing for my life,” Setter said. “My dad enjoyed listening to Mitch Miller and Lawrence Welk, and we would have many family sing-a-longs with my guitar.”
Setter grew up singing from the F.E.L. hymnal books in the parish pews and was there for the beginning of the guitar folk-style music played at Mass and in the schools.
“I even attended an evening at the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center a few years back with Archbishop (Jerome E.) Listecki and others leading us in these oldies but goodies like, ‘Shout from the Highest Mountain,’ ‘Here We Are’ and ‘Sons of God,’” she said.
While in grade school, Setter and some friends began singing and playing their instruments each week for the Saturday evening Vigil Mass. In the summer of 1974, when Peggy Hugunin (Hughes), the volunteer music director, was leaving to get married, Fr. Paul Lippert, one of the parish associates, asked Setter if she would take over and direct the music and singers for Vigil Mass.
“For the next four years as a high school student and then as a freshman in college, I directed the music and musicians at the Saturday 5:15 p.m. Mass under the supervision of our parish priests, especially Fr. Jerry Brittain, who was an important mentor to me during those early years in my vocation,” Setter said. “I was given many opportunities to attend liturgical music conferences, archdiocesan workshops and one summer saw the St. Louis Jesuits in concert at the University of Notre Dame. I especially liked playing their music because it was based on the Scriptures we heard at Mass.”
During her college years, Setter and her family became involved with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal at St. Mary. The family attended weekly prayer meetings led by their associate pastor in the parish hall. Not long after, she and several others began leading the music for the prayer groups.
“I began to grow significantly in my relationship with Jesus and realized how sacred music, even the simple repeated refrains, through the working of the Holy Spirit, could deeply touch people’s hearts and souls and bring them closer to God,” she said. “The saying by St. Augustine, ‘He who sings, prays twice,’ truly resonated within me.”
When Setter attended UW-Whitewater, Fr. Brittain encouraged her to minor in music in addition to her major in elementary education. It seemed as if God wanted her to pursue her music, for when she arrived on campus, she noticed a job posting for Catholic Campus Ministry to lead the music for one morning Mass each Sunday at St. Patrick’s Church.
“I interviewed with Fr. Dick Thomas, who was the priest there at that time, and for the next three years, I had the job of planning, recruiting and directing the music for this Mass that took place in the school hall at St. Patrick’s,” she said. “Since I was a music minor, I would ask all my friends in the music department to join in and so many did. I seldom came home during that time, but when I did, I was right back at my home parish of St. Mary’s, getting my friends together to sing during our Christmas, Easter or summer breaks, and still receiving encouragement from Fr. Jerry about a possible church music job.”
Setter has enjoyed working with the many volunteers, from grade school children to adults of all ages, to share their time and musical gifts. She also led different groups of singers and choirs and sang for Mass for Shut-Ins on TV at the Channel 6 studio and Heart of the Nation. The parish also produced three CDs of contemporary sacred music.
“Music is a gift from God, and through it, people encounter Jesus Christ in new ways, especially at Sunday liturgy,” she said. “I have worked with countless cantors, directed trios or quartet vocal ensembles, directed the adult and youth choirs, and have had more than 100 youth and adult instrumentalists who have served the parish with their musical gifts.”