By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS, firstname.lastname@example.org
TRAVERSE CITY — If the 11 a.m. Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church is a bit more crowded these days, it may be because of some heavenly music.
For the past several weeks the service has been enhanced by the talents of St. Francis' newest parishioners, several music majors from Interlochen Arts Academy.
"From beginning to end, they play everything," said St. Francis music director Fred Szczepanski. "It's been a really big treat for us to have them."
Academy students have long attended and performed at area churches, most notably Central United Methodist and First Congregational in Traverse City. But this is the first time St. Francis has been the regular beneficiary of their talents, Szczepanski said.
"A few years ago I got a few of these kids, but most of the time they'd go to St. Patrick's because that's closer. For some reason this year there was a group of 12 of them that came to St. Francis," he said.
The students began attending the church shortly after Academy classes started in September. They arrive by Interlochen bus each Sunday about 50 minutes before the second service of the day and sit together in the same pew, Szczepanski said.
After introducing themselves to Pastor Kenneth Stachnik, who in turn introduced them to Szczepanski, a clarinetist from Chile asked if he could play at Mass one Sunday.
"I said, 'Bring your instrument. Anything to enhance the service is OK with me,'" Szczepanski recalled.
Soon the clarinetist was joined by a trumpet player from Peru, a violist from Mexico and a horn player from Poland. A drummer and a bassist followed.
Now "it's like this combo up there," said Szczepanski, who's called "Mr. Fred" by parishioners. "The kids are just phenomenal. They don't even need to look at the music."
Besides instrumentalists, the service features two Academy vocalists.
"They sound like angels. They just blew me away," Szczepanski said. "You never know who you're going to get. The last five or six weeks they've been very faithful in coming every week. They don't take any pay. They say they're doing it for God."
Elmer Churamti is a first-year Academy trumpet student from Lima, Peru. Back home, music isn't offered at school and Catholic Masses feature only a little music, he said.
"This music in USA is more beautiful," said Churamti, 14. "The music in Lima is beautiful but not the way it is here."
Churamti, who also plays piano, said he is one of several musicians in his family.
"My father plays trumpet and my grandfather — but popular music, not classical," he said. "My father plays in a band for people who dance."
Like the other Academy parishioners, Churamti receives his music for the service when he arrives for church each Sunday. Altogether the musicians play about 10 to 12 pieces during the Mass, Szczepanski said.
"Those kids are so gifted. They're born doing this," he said. "I never know what Elmer is understanding when I talk to him because he doesn't speak much English. But then he plays and it's so beautiful."
Performing at church services is a way for the students to stay connected to their faith while away from home and to immerse themselves in their new community.
"There's also a lot of other students that have done that around the community," said Chris Hintz, Interlochen's national marketing and communications manager. "So it's a way to get involved that a lot of students have pursued."