Many people don’t live past 70, let alone volunteer at one thing for that long. Tell that to Bill Bartels, who has spent 70 of his 88 years singing in the Basilica of St. Francis Xavier choir.
His mother, Marie, was instrumental in his joining as a teenager. “Music was important in our house and if you could sing, Mom urged you to use that gift,” said Bartels. “She was a long time member of the choir and a strong soprano, along with Dorothy Link, and we spent a lot of hours in church while the choir practiced. It just seemed to be the thing to do. We were comfortable there and it didn’t seem strange to be a teenager singing with the older members of that choir. Mom always said, “if you sing, you pray twice,” and I figured I needed it.”
Bartels named the strongest singers in the choir, the ones “I was happy to stand next to. It made it easier for me to sing, since I didn’t really read the music. I learned the song by ear and when they stood next to me, it was easier to learn.” He listed long time stalwarts Henry Mescher, Frank Gebhart and John Brueckner, all basses, and Tony Pins, “a tenor alongside me. When it came time to take pictures of the choir, though, I’d usually move to the back row and let those guys be upfront, since they were older than I was.”
He added that pictures were relatively common in the glory days of the choir. “We used to tour with the choir on the Sundays we were free. We visited parishes all over Eastern Iowa and Dubuque. We even went to Stacyville and Waterloo. Those were great days and, for me, a wonderful time. We were always treated well and well-fed after those performances,” he smiled.
The tours came under the direction of the Rev. Al May, a long time assistant at the Basilica, who took the choir under his wing. “When you sang with those Basilica choirs, you were extremely proud to be a member. The commitment was huge, we practiced a ton. When Fr. May set practice, he was pretty easy-going, until it was time to sing, and then you worked hard. But you were willing to put in the hours because people appreciated what you did.” Bartels named May his favorite director, among the many he has followed over the years. He also listed organists Mary (Klostermann) MacBride and Ann Schmitz who put in many years of playing.
There were just two years, during the Korean war, that Bartels was a soldier and not part of the choir. “But once I got back I was there from the first hours,” he said.
That type of commitment is just not there anymore he said. “I don’t know why people won’t sing with the choir now. It seems they don’t want to make the commitment of time. Of course, there are so many more things to take their time now, but I always figure, you have to go to church anyway, why not sing? Once you’re involved, you can feel the value of being a part of something like that.”
Throat cancer is trying to steal Bartels’ love of singing. “Even the choir loft stairs haven’t got me down yet, but the cancer is getting the better of my throat, though I have been trying an immunotherapy protocol that seems to be doing good things for my voice. It is a lot better this week than it was just a week ago. I’m taking it day-by-day and will repeat the therapy the first week in October. It’s hard to miss a part of my life that filled such a big space in it.”
He added, “One thing I really want to say. As a soldier, I was supposed to be with the Legion for Memorial Day masses but I was upstairs singing instead. The guys all said, ‘You just sing because we love to hear those patriotic songs.’ And as a choir member, we loved to hear the congregation sing those songs too. They really belted them out, making a beautiful noise in that building.”
The cancer has slowed Bartels a bit but he still walks a mile every day and plays golf when he can, “but I’m definitely not too good at that anymore, just ask the guys I played with.” He also climbed those choir loft stairs when he could. “Of course, since March everything’s changed, but I sure hope we get back to singing again.”