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They said organizing band programs wouldn't work, but Sister Serafina proved them wrong

Music of the Spirit

They told her it couldn't be done.

Sister Serafina Viagrande had a dream to some day provide instrumental music education in Catholic elementary schools on a grand scale.

"My whole life was music as a child," she said. "I realized the importance of music, and I saw the lack of music in Catholic schools."

When she was an enthusiastic young nun wanting to organize multiple band programs during the 1950s in Columbus, Ohio, several priests told her it would never work.

Sister Serafina proved them wrong in Pittsburgh.

The instrumental music program she manages for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has grown to include 76 schools and is believed to be the largest band program for Catholic school elementary pupils in the country.

This year marks her 25th anniversary at the helm of the band program.

"By providing children this chance to play instruments, they can discover if they have the gift," she said. "Even if they don't continue their whole life, they can have an appreciation for what's good in music."

While a growing number of religious sisters no longer wear the traditional habit, Sister Serafina, 76, said she always will do so because it's her way of representing God to people without having to say a word.

Her band pupils are her disciples. She is the tiny, soft-spoken, but stern music teacher who insists they sit up straight, behave and pay attention throughout concert rehearsals that run up to 41/2 hours. She seldom has to correct anyone. Students respect her as a nun and a musician.

"We never wanted to push the envelop with her because she made music important enough that we really wanted to do it well," said Tom Wilson, 50, of the North Side, a former student at St. Thomas District High School in Braddock.

Some of her students went on to earn advanced degrees in music.

John Rogel, 50, who also attended St. Thomas, received a bachelor's degree in music from the University of Maryland. He's now a professional classical music teacher and opera singer in Bowie, Md. Sister Serafina taught him to play bass viol.

"Her deep understanding and her love for music is what inspired me most," he said.

The total enrollment in her band program this year falls just shy of 2,000 elementary school pupils, 36 band directors and five district managers.

Although the National Catholic Education Association in Washington, D.C., keeps no official records on elementary school band memberships, officers there believe her program could be the largest of its kind in the nation.

"It is very extraordinary, especially in this day and age," said Sister Mary Dawson, assistant elementary school executive director for NCEA. "More often those programs are run by musicians from the local areas who are willing to take on music lessons for one or maybe two schools. What she is doing is a rarity across the country."

The Rev. Kris Stubna, diocesan secretary for education, said 80 percent of all elementary schools in the diocese participate in her band program.

"Music is one of those things that gets set aside because of curriculums and budgets," Father Stubna said. "But music is another language that opens the mind and heart to human understanding in a different kind of way.

"She really believes getting children in music learning at an early age will have a profound impact on their lives," he said.

At a time when many Catholic schools are struggling to pay salaries for classroom teachers, her band program has grown from 22 to 76 schools over the years, largely because it costs schools nothing to provide it.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh pays Sister Serafina a stipend of $1,000 a month and parents of band students pay her a $10 annual fee for each child in the program. She provides a band teacher for each of the schools. Parents pay those teachers $18 to $26 a month for each band student.

"In the past, teachers got a percentage of what the parents paid outside companies that ran the program," Sister Serafina said. "When I took it over, I felt the teachers deserved to get all the payment, and they stayed."

Only in the past few years has Sister Serafina given up teaching in schools, limited her travel and shifted the bulk of her duties to administering the program, which she does from an office at St. Aloysius Rectory in Reserve.

Her best students in each district have the opportunity to perform concerts as a group in Honors Band and the All-Star Band at no additional cost.

A Dominican Sister of St. Mary of the Springs, Sister Serafina came to the United States from Sicily as a baby in 1931, joined the convent in 1949 in Columbus and was sent to Pittsburgh in 1965.

Violin is her main instrument, but she has studied all band and string instruments and holds a master's degree in music education from Ohio State University.

She used to play the violin with the University of Pittsburgh Community Orchestra, the Wilkinsburg Symphony and the Pittsburgh Savoyards. She continues to perform on the violin in church and in the convent.

The Rev. Hugh Lang, former superintendent of Catholic Schools for the diocese, made it possible for Sister Serafina to fulfill her life's ambition when he appointed her in 1982 to coordinate the instrumental music program.

The band program was declining steadily under the leadership of outside companies. She feared it would fade away completely, and she was not about to let that happen.

"Sister Serafina doesn't understand the word 'no,' " said Father Lang, now retired and living at St. Anne's in Castle Shannon. "To say she was appointed by me is an understatement. She appointed herself.

"Anything she undertakes, she does it with such enthusiasm it won't fail," Father Lang said. "She puts her heart and soul into her work."

Charles and Jean Marie Nemeth, of Thornburg, have had six children in Sister Serafina's music program, one of whom obtained a bachelor's degree in music from Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and a master's degree in music from the Royal Academy of Music in London.

"Sister Serafina was essentially the capstone of all my children's instrumental musical experience," Mr. Nemeth said. "She magnificently incorporates the spiritual life into music. She sees music as a spiritual undertaking. It's her method of spreading the gospel."

By Tim Grant
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sister Serafina Viagrande puts the finishing touches on a band practice that began several hours earlier, including a lunch break. She has been running band programs for the Diocese of Pittsburgh for 25 years.


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