As a little girl, Jolita Frank remembers quietly practicing the Catholic faith with her parents. While they attended Mass on Sundays, they did not openly express their faith, nor would they discuss it in public. Formal religious education classes were prohibited, and children could only learn about faith quietly in their homes.
Life in Soviet-occupied Lithuania was not simple for Frank. But, thanks to faith-filled parents, she developed a relationship with God.
“If our school teachers found out that we were learning about the Catholic faith, they would report us,” said Frank, 43. “We lived in fear of that. My parents never said what would happen, but the history in Lithuania was that a lot of people were taken by train to Siberia for practicing their faith.”
In fact, Frank’s maternal grandparents, uncle, aunt and cousins were forced to ride the train to Siberia as punishment for failing to cloak their Catholicism. Her grandfather and uncle starved to death along the journey.
Parish: St. Leonard Parish, Muskego
Occupation: Director of music, St. Leonard, Muskego
Favorite movie: “Mamma Mia” and anything with Meryl Streep in it!
Book recently read: “Rome Sweet Rome,” by Scott Hahn
Favorite quotation: Psalm 27:
(Catholic Herald photo by Maryangela Layman Román)
“They separated the men from the women and children, so my family didn’t know that they died until they arrived in Siberia. It was so sad,” explained Frank. “After a few years, the rest of them sneaked out and came back secretly. They lived with my mom’s parents for a while under my mom’s maiden name.”
Despite the looming oppression, Frank grew up in a happy home filled with love; she inherited her father’s love of music, and enjoyed singing and playing the piano. Each time she saw an organ, she fought the desire to sit and finger the keys, reluctant to take lessons as it might cast suspicion around her that she would use her talents to play in church.
“I suppose I could have taken classes, but at the time I thought, ‘What’s the point of taking it if I can’t play in church?’ But some of my classmates took the course and played in church later,” she explained. “And when it came time to attend the Music Academy of Lithuania I could honestly say in the questionnaire that I did not work or play for the Catholic Church. If I would have put ‘yes’ down, I would be on their radar and maybe not be accepted into this highly competitive school.”
Frank earned a bachelor’s degree in music from the academy, and after waiting for two years, sought out an elderly nun who taught her to play the organ. During those college years, she met and married Arturas and had a son, Nojus. To escape the religious persecution, Arturas moved the family to the United States where they could freely practice their Catholic faith.
“I didn’t want to leave my family and friends, but also didn’t want to be left behind, so I decided to go with him,” said Frank. “It was a shock to me because Nojus was only 4 months old and, as a new mom, I wasn’t prepared for such a change in my life.”
A couple of years later, after Rose, now 18, was born, Arturas became ill and died, leaving Frank overwhelmed, heartbroken and afraid.
“I had to figure out what to do, learn the American ways, learn the language, get a job and figure out how to live without going paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “My mom came to help me for a while, and my mother-in-law came later to help me, so I could go back to school.”
With her family’s support, she earned her master’s degree in vocal accompanying from UW–Milwaukee and a couple of years later, went on to earn her teaching certification.
While she was substitute teaching a piano class at UWM, she met her current husband, Daniel, who was taking the course.
“He was kind of cute and followed me around,” laughed Frank. “We married 14 years ago. He was wonderful and raised my kids, and watched them while I went to school or was busy with rehearsals at church or teaching piano at home.”
As she continued to become proficient with the organ, she drifted back toward her childhood dream of playing in the Catholic Church. She has served as music director at St. Robert Bellarmine Parish, Union Grove; St. Catherine Parish, Milwaukee; St. Anthony Parish, Menomonee Falls; St. Jerome Parish, Oconomowoc; and currently at St. Leonard Parish, Muskego
“I have been so blessed to have wonderful priests who helped me learn the American way of liturgy, and were a great support to me over the years,” said Frank. “I feel so good to be working in the Catholic faith – liturgy is different here than in Lithuania, so I am happy for the guidance I received.”
Living through religious oppression, moving to a foreign country and losing a spouse might crack the strongest of souls, but for Frank, God kept her grounded and blessed with the grace to persevere.
“I talked to God every day, and told him, ‘God, I need you to help me take care of my children and raise them. I will be happy if they are happy,’” she said. “I also asked him to help me by leading the way in all that I did. He was there for me and helped me to meet my husband.”
Without her faith and music, Frank said she would have been lost after her husband passed away.
“Music is the part that kept me coming back to the Catholic faith,” she said. “I love to work with my music and although people look to me for spiritual enrichment, I get it back from them. The relationship between music and faith seem to feed off each other and it is truly a giving and receiving ministry.”