Intercom Feature Articles
Who Shall Find a Valiant Woman?
By Carolyn Kesterman, Communications intern
S. Loretto Burke is the Community’s only living orchestral composer.
One night in the spring of 1964, an audience at Marian High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, was left stunned as students, backed by an orchestra, performed the debut of a new composition paying tribute to the life of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton. The piece was called A Valiant Woman, and was a work of love composed by the talented S. Loretto Burke, the Community’s only living orchestral composer.
Born in Ripley, West Virginia, on May 23, 1922, S. Loretto’s gift of music became clear when she was only 5 years old. Her mother, a musician herself, enrolled Sister’s older sister Rosemarie in piano lessons, and S. Loretto would sit in the room after her first grade classes to wait while Rosemarie had her lesson. “One day when I came home, I went to the piano and started picking out what she had played,” S. Loretto remembers. “She got so mad at me that my mother said she would let me take piano lessons if I promised never to play Rosemarie’s pieces again.”
The span of her musical abilities continued to unfold as she grew up, and when she took lessons from the talented S. Agnes Eppley at the College of Mount St. Joseph after entering the Community in 1939, she felt inspired to pursue music education. “In her and her music I saw music as a way of doing good,” S. Loretto says. “I learned that doing good was also doing what you loved doing.” After a few years of teaching music, S. Loretto was encouraged to attend The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. to pursue a master’s degree in musical education. There, the dean of the school scheduled her in a fugue class taught by Conrad Bernier (1904-1988), a French-Canadian organist, teacher, and composer who was taught at the Sorbonne in France. In her first class, S. Loretto sat overwhelmed and confused as Bernier spoke in broken English on a subject she knew little about. This feeling only increased the next day when Bernier started the class by asking her for the resume of the previous day’s learnings. “I didn’t know what else to do,” S. Loretto says. “I just looked at him and said, ‘Mr. Bernier, I don’t know a word you said yesterday.’” He told her to see him after class, where he spoke slowly and explained the material better for her, beginning their friendship.
A novice here, S. Winnie Brubach (left) has remained close with S. Loretto Burke after singing in the Marian High School performance of A Valiant Woman, owing her life’s direction to the Sister.
At the end of the course, he said to her one day, “You work in music education?” S. Loretto nodded and he said, “No. You should be writing.” That planted a seed in S. Loretto’s mind that wouldn’t go away. “We were writing these fugues and I said well, I would like that. So I came back here to the Mount and I went in to see Mother Mary Zoe [Farrell] and told her that this professor said I should be writing and that I really enjoyed it. She said, ‘If you want to write, you write.’ So I became Mr. Bernier’s protégé.”
To master in composition, students had to write a composition of good proportions, and since Elizabeth Seton had just been beatified and was up for canonization at that time, she found her inspiration there. She began to write a cantata that would not be just another retelling of her life, but a look at key moments, at feelings that were integral in her journey with God. Right away, when thinking of how to proceed, the passage “Who shall find a valiant woman?” from Proverbs 31:10 stood out to her, and she decided to make that a recurring theme. She visited the Sisters of Charity archives in Emmitsburg, Maryland, and spent time with Elizabeth Seton’s original letters, gaining a better idea of the woman and her internal emotions. Soon, the beginnings of S. Loretto’s composition started to take shape into something that Bernier recognized as greatly special, and one day, he advised her to set the composition aside for a little while, explaining that if she handed it in as her master’s composition, the copyright would belong to the university. Not wanting that to happen, S. Loretto took his advice and started on a new composition, a symphonic dance suite. The national symphony played the piece during a reading day. “[But] that was the end of that. I came back here and I finished my tribute to Mother Seton,” she said.
Finding time to compose in between teaching in Cincinnati, S. Loretto’s composition came to the forefront of her mind again. When asked about her writing process, she says that for her, the words usually came before the music, or occasionally at the same time. “I remember when I thought of the lazaretto [in Italy where Elizabeth Seton’s husband died], and all of a sudden I’m thinking ‘out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord,’ [Psalm 130:1] and it just came to me how I wanted to sing it,” S. Loretto remembers. The haunting section inspired by the lazaretto was the final piece she wrote for the composition, though its place in the work is towards the middle. “It was very beautiful; I loved it,” she says. “I don’t know; it just came out. Music has to come, like all art, from the heart.”
“I got it all finished and I thought, I need to hear this,” she says. “I’ve done all this work and I think it’s going to sound pretty good. I was teaching at Marian High School and I thought, I’ll get the girls to sing it.”
Among the students who performed the piece were several girls who would later enter the Sisters of Charity. One such woman is S. Patricia Wittberg, who says that she still remembers three of the songs in the cantata and could sing two of them easily, adding that the Alleluia section at the end still to this day gets stuck in her head often. “There was also a section in the middle with the words ‘the Lord is my shepherd,’ and I remember that it was haunting,” she says of the lazaretto section.
S. Winnie Brubach is another Sister who was a student then, and she remembers the performance well. “We all wanted to do our very best,” she says. “It was a new kind of music to us as high school students; it was difficult and challenging. The words of the intro were especially powerful.”
S. Loretto confirms that wholeheartedly. “My greatest thrill was to direct and hear what I’d heard in my head and my heart,” she says.
The next performance of A Valiant Woman took place in 1977 at a Community Congress held at the College of Mount St. Joseph. “I just put out a call for whoever wanted to sing,” S. Loretto recalls. “They knew about the composition and they just showed up. It was unbelievable; it was so nice.” The response to the performance was glowing. John Nartker, a prolific artist who had been an influential professor at the college, said after hearing the composition, “Loretto, that’s poetry and music wed,” one of S. Loretto’s favorite responses she ever received about the piece.
The composition was performed in its entirety at least four more times: at Seton High School for the Seton-Elder Series at Eight in 1978; by the Seton High School Junior-Senior Chorus in the Basilica at the National Shrine of Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland, also in 1978; by the College of Mount St. Joseph glee club for the college’s 60th anniversary in 1980; and at the Motherhouse’s Immaculate Conception Chapel for the Motherhouse centennial in 1984, which was taped and has been preserved by the Archives department. S. Annette Muckerheide, one of the Sisters who sang in the choir for that performance, says she could write a book about S. Loretto and the time she spent with her music. “It was always a joy and a privilege to make music under Loretto’s direction,” she says. “She was an amazing conductor who knew just how to push a choir to perform to the maximum, but always with gentleness and respect. We wanted to do the best we could for her, to do justice to her glorious composition for the honor of Mother Seton. There was a lot of love, respect, and prayer going on both in the rehearsals and in the performance.”
S. Loretto has composed other pieces of music through the years. But the dearest to her besides A Valiant Woman is a composition called Come with Me that she wrote for her entrance group on their Golden Jubilee in 1989. She had been approached by one of the other Sisters in her Jubilee group to write a piece for the Mass, but she couldn’t think of any direction to go with it. One day at a Mass during a meeting at Good Samaritan Hospital, though, some words in the sermon struck her and she pulled out a piece of paper to make some notes. “I went home and I couldn’t get it all together, but then in the middle of the night, I got this idea and I got up and wrote the whole song. Sometimes things just come like that,” she says. Come with Me was played at her Golden Jubilee, Diamond Jubilee, and by another jubilee group in 1995. It is a very dear composition to S. Loretto, and she has requested that it be played at her funeral someday.
A Valiant Woman remains her biggest claim to fame, though, and the praise of the composition led to the cantata being featured in the 1983 edition of the Anthology of Large Choral Works by American Composers, as well as being a factor in her induction into the Cincinnati MacDowell Society which is affiliated with the national organization known as the MacDowell Colony that recognizes talented artists, musicians, and writers. Adding to her acceptance into the society was her music education ministry that she dedicated herself to alongside composing. S. Loretto spent 52 years teaching music in some capacity, spreading a passion for music and creativity to countless individuals. Her studies with Bernier stayed with her as she also directed extracurricular student orchestras and bands at these institutions, and the lessons taught remain at the forefront of many minds still today. Old students frequently send cards or even visit her at Mother Margaret Hall nursing facility to let her know how she inspired them, some even telling her of vocational choices she impacted.
But no matter the degree of the impact, whether it has been a vocational choice or a song that plays in the mind from time to time, S. Loretto’s talents and love have deeply touched all who have had the privilege to know her. Associate Patrice Harty, a former Sister of Charity and another performer in the Marian performance, has glowing words about her memories with S. Loretto. “I remember that the music had so much energy and variation. She was so talented, but more than that, very down-to-earth and easy to talk to. She listened to us and was genuinely interested in what we thought and what we had to say, inspiring us to want to do well. She taught me how to play the flute, which I still do, and she got me ready for the Community. To this day I enjoy visiting and talking with her. In my mind, she is also ‘a valiant woman.’”S. Loretto is full of thankfulness for how her music has touched the lives of others as surely as her own. “I’ve gotten a lot of happiness out of what I’ve done. It’s been a great ride,” she says. “I will thank God until my dying day for my music.”