St. Mary Catholics showed up–vastly outnumbered by the Scandinavian Lutherans–with predictable results

Crowds gathered for the on the Town Hall grounds in the village of Cormorant. Pictured here, director of the Cormorant Lutheran traditional choir, Delaine Struble–who has been conducting the group for more than three decades.

Pity the Catholics of the Greater Pelican and Cormorant Lake Country.

Hopelessly outnumbered by Scandinavian Lutherans, the Catholic choir of St. Mary of the Lakes bravely joined the first-ever church choir competition during Cormorant Daze August 19.

Lake country Catholics have been playing catch-up ever since Norwegian Nels Erikson parked his ox cart in Cormorant Township in 1870, fathering five with his wife Eliza. Another Norseman, Knut Matson, arrived a couple years later–spawning a family of 11 kids.

Catholics, for the most part, showed up a few decades later. Even with families of 12, 14, 15–it was a mathematic impossibility to go forth and multiply in sufficient numbers to overtake the Lutherans.


Such was the historic back story when young choir director Joe Zeleznik brought his St. Mary’s singers to the Cormorant Town Hall for the choir competition.

All in good fun, the choir groups engaged in pre-game “locker room talk.” Threatening in jest to bribe the judges; as well as “sabotaging” the opposition singers.

“We’re always outnumbered,” lamented Zeleznik, an American with ancestral roots in Slovakia. They have peculiar ideas about the alphabet in eastern Europe. Gierszewski was the nam of a husband-wife team of Polish-Americans, Dave and Judy, also in the Catholic vocal ranks.

Meanwhile, soprano Janice Lapatka is
a Polish gal from Franklin Lake. She’s a “rookie” who has been singing with the choir for only two weeks. In the bass section, it was Bohemian-American Adrian Flicek.


Contest judges, too, were suspect. All had strong Lutheran ties. Tally Miosek has been a Lutheran choir director, previously at Zion Lutheran. Lori Engeseth is with Lake Park Lutheran–and–the third judge, Gary Erdman, is a retired Lutheran minister, most recently an interim pastor at Grove Lake Lutheran.

Clearly, the deck was stacked against the Catholics.

Carole LaRue Skalsky, singing with the Cormorant Lutheran contemporary praise group at the August 19, first ever Cormorant Daze Church Choir Contest. The “Cormorant Contemporaries” took first in the competition.

Singers with normal names –Olson, Johnson, Anderson, Nelson –formed the opposition choir rosters.
• The Faith Lutheran choir of Pelican Rapids.
• The Cormorant Lutheran Traditional Choir.
• The Cormorant Lutheran “contemporary” group. This Christian rock and roll outfit had a guitar, played by Rev. Wade Dutton himself. Singer Carole LaRue Skalsky had psychedelic red and blue hair–plus aviator sunglasses just like Eric Clapton’s. They had a young blonde, front and center, Tasha Erickson. The Cormorant contemporaries even had conga drums.

To top it off, the contemporary group paraded out a handful of Sunday school kids who danced under the direction of Carol Mermon. With a straight face, Pastor Dutton legitimized the troupe as “liturgical dancers” to disguise the shameless show-biz ploy for the judges. All smiley, wholesome, cute, fresh-faced, and bubbly; Chloe Hendrickson, Sam Bestge and Hally Heimbuch were well-choreographed and inspired by the teachings of Jesus following the recent Vacation Bible School session.

How on earth could any act compete against the spectacle of the Cormorant Contemporaries?


And then…there was the behind-thescenes scheming by the other Lutherans.

“Well, we’re singing first on the program, so we’ll finish our portion and go out in the audience and heckle the rest of the choirs,” laughed Faith Lutheran singer Denise Johnson, with a wicked grin. For added insurance, she joked that had she had three, $100 bills tucked in her music folder–one for each of the three judges.

The Faith Lutheran guys were misbehaving, like usual, with pre-contest “trash talk.” “You’re such a bad singer–you couldn’t pass the audition for a Catholic choir…heh, heh..” chortled one of the smart alecs.

Beer, on ice under the Cormorant picnic shelter, was another potential pay-off to the judges from the Faith Lutheran gang. There was also an unconfirmed report that the Lutherans were planning to swipe one another’s music prior to the performances.


It was the Cormorant Lutheran Choir men who were the most devious. Choir boys, they are not.

Unlike Faith Lutheran, which arrived with matching white shirts and khaki slacks, there was no uniformity among the 25-member Cormorant Lutheran traditional choir. They resembled a low-budget bowling league team.

“Gosh, we look a little shabby,” said Les Nettum, eyeballing the well-dressed Faith Lutheran entourage.

But Cormorant singer Roger Boatman had a plan to overcome the wardrobe malfunction.

A Cormorant Daze feature this year was helicopter rides. Boatman humorously threatened to pay off the chopper pilot so he would fly the noisy whirlybird overhead at precisely 1:04 p.m.–when Faith Lutheran was on stage. Unfortunately, the caper backfired completely. The pilot botched it; arriving late, at 1:22 p.m.–midway through the Cormorant Lutheran performance.

Now, the integrity of Cormorant choir director Delaine Struble is beyond reproach. She’s been conducting the singers for 31 years–dating all the way back to the old building, before the fancy new Cormorant church was built. Never would Delaine engage in corruption to win a choir contest.

The problem: Delaine always had a difficult time controlling the wayward men of the Cormorant bass and tenor section. Especially troublemaker Dave Brenna. He was packing almost $4,000 dollars– locked in the trunk of his car–and he laughed that he was prepared to slip it to the judges. These dollars were collected earlier in the day at the record-setting Cormorant Lions pancake feed.

Stuck in his position as treasurer of the Cormorant Lions, Brenna has been wanting out. Unfortunately, he keeps getting re-appointed. A conviction for bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors would be one clear avenue for relinquishing his treasurer’s post.

“I’ve been struggling to find an exit strategy…this could be my big chance,” laughed Brenna of his scheme to pay off the judges with Lions pancake proceeds.

Les Nettum, meanwhile, said he contacted some pom pom girls to trot out and bring some pizzazz to the Cormorant choir presentation.


Judging the first ever Cormorant Daze Church Choir contest, from left, Lori Engeseth, retired pastor Gary Erdman and Tally Miosek.

The contest was at risk of becoming a criminal, potentially felonious scandal.

Becker County Sheriff Todd Glander was on the other side of the village; shaking hands, kissing babies, and hustling voters during Cormorant Daze record attendance–in no position to enforce a fair choir competition. Meanwhile, his deputies were detained –frequently–at the mini-donut stand across the Cormorant bridge. They weren’t available for oversight.

With nobody in an official capacity to keep the first annual Cormorant Church Choir Contest honest–the responsibility fell on the Pelican Rapids Press to expose these various improprieties.


“We would never stoop to bribery,” insisted Catholic singer Gierszewski.

The St. Mary of the Lakes Catholic Church Choir was accompanied by retired nun, Sister Patrice, of the Crookston Diocese.

St. Mary’s played it fair and square; they had three “secret weapons.”
1) A piano-playing nun. Sister Patrice, of the Crookston Diocese, accompanied the group. “Prayer always helps,” smiled Sister Patrice, as the St. Mary’s singers took the stage.
2) “We’re breaking out the Latin,” boasted St. Mary’s choir director Zelznik. One of the selections featured a refrain–sung in Latin. Surely the judges would be impressed with St, Mary’s decision to deploy the language of the original Bible translation.
3) “Well, we really don’t want to play the holier than thou card, but….” smiled St. Mary’s singer Lapatka.

Struggling to control his troops, Rev. Phil Johnson gathered the Faith Lutheran singers in prayer prior to the event. Secretly, Choir director Geralyn Lyseng was just praying some leather-clad clod on a Harley Davidson wouldn’t rumble by during the outdoor performance and drown out the music.

The Faith singers dug deep into the Lutheran music library with “Praise the Lord Almighty,” which dates to about year 1670. Surely, the all-Lutheran judge panel would appreciate musical literature dating nearly as far back as Martin Luther himself.

During the Faith Lutheran performance, director Lyseng even pandered to the judges with a Miss America-pageant-stylemessage about “praying for global peace… blah, blah, blah.”

As for the Cormorant choir and the Cormorant contemporary group, well, they sort of had the home field advantage.

Not to mention, half of Pelican’s Faith Lutheran vocalists are beyond age 80. Most of St. Mary’s choir members are past 60.

When the dust settled, the glamor and glitter of the Cormorant contemporary group captivated the judges. They were awarded first place–and a $500 prize.

There was a tie for second, between the Cormorant Lutheran traditional choir; and the Pelican Faith Lutheran singers. This propelled the competition into a “sing-off.” The judges ruled Faith Lutheran the winner, for a $300 prize.

Cormorant Lutheran was awarded $200 for third place; and St. Mary’s $100 for fourth place.

The churches can use the money for music and other choir expenses. The Cormorant traditional choir may consider earmarking the earnings for uniforms.

Right, St. Mary of the Lakes choir, pictured here with director Joe Zeleznik.

As for the Catholics? Just wait ‘til next year…

St. Mary’s is an active, growing congregation of nearly 300 families–with three masses each Sunday in the summer. Director Zeleznik will no doubt have his troops ready for action.

Despite the jesting, joking, jabbering and jostling prior to the competition, the choir contest was a fun day of inter-faith comradery.

One of the “rock stars” from the winning Cormorant contemporary group, Carole LaRue Skalsky perhaps summed it up best: “We all support and love one another here..everybody worships in different ways.”

Alleluia…and amen–sisters and brothers.