Sister honored for ‘giving glory to God’ through music

Photos by Brittney Lohmiller/The Herald
The Sisters of St. Benedict hosted an Indiana University ChoralFest Mini-Concert Friday at Monastery Immaculate Conception in Ferdinand. During the event, IU’s Jacobs School of Music honored Sister Theresita Schenk, 97, with the Jacobs Dean’s Excellence Award in recognition of her lifetime service to the music profession.


FERDINAND — After more than 80 years as an organist and pianist, Sister Theresita Schenk, 97, earned an award for her talents.

Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music awarded Schenk the Jacobs Dean’s Excellence Award on Friday in recognition of her service to the profession. Throughout her life, Schenk played the organ and piano for churches — she still plays for the Sisters of St. Benedict — and composed antiphons, masses and songs for the church. At age 88, she recorded a CD. She also taught lessons to what former student Sister Catherine Duenne called “a mind-boggling” number of students.

“I enjoyed all the years,” Schenk said.

Schenk stayed busy during the school years teaching music students in the Ferdinand schools, but in the summers between 1958 and 1968, she attended Indiana University to get a master’s degree in music education. She’d hoped to get a doctorate, but could not meet the requirement of being on IU’s campus during the school year. She was needed in Dubois County to teach and serve as the monastery’s liturgist and organist, Duenne said. Still, Duenne thought Schenk deserved a high honor for her work in music and contacted the Jacobs School of Music about the Dean’s Excellence Award.

On Friday, Vince Carr from Indiana University presented Schenk the award in a surprise celebration that included a concert by the IU ChoralFest. The award was a surprise, and Schenk said she had no idea she would be honored when she took her seat in the front row of the monastery church. Behind her, the church was filled with former students and friends who had come to see her receive the award.

“You have spent your whole life giving glory to God through your gift of music,” Duenne told Schenk during her remarks. “We are here to thank you and recognize your service as (a) lifelong learner, teacher and performer of sacred music.”

Schenk taught music for approximately 75 years and learned to play the organ when she was 12 years old.

Schenk began playing the organ as a girl with her mother, Margaret, in St. Philip, Indiana. Schenk attended high school at Marian Heights Academy at the Monastery Immaculate Conception and entered the order upon graduation. Over the following decades, Schenk served the Monastery Immaculate Conception and the surrounding area with her musical talent, including as a teacher for students at Marian Heights. That’s where Theresa Bauer met Schenk. Bauer attended Marian Heights and always wanted to take lessons with Schenk. Finally, during Bauer’s senior year, she got her wish.

“(Schenk) collected and corrected all my rudimentary skills,” Bauer said.

Bauer remembers Schenk as a calm teacher who sat quietly beside her students and made suggestions. Bauer remembers Schenk putting her foot down only once. When Bauer started organ lessons with Schenk, she’d been accustomed to playing the foot pedals barefoot. That wasn’t going to fly with Schenk.

“She said, ‘Yes, you are going to wear shoes,’” Bauer recalled.

Schenk played the organ during evening prayers at the monastery Monday.

Bauer went on to become a music teacher herself — in part, because of Schenk — and the two women became friends. When Bauer became an oblate with Monastery of Immaculate Conception, Schenk became her sister companion.

Schenk said she devoted her life to music because she “just likes it” and felt that it brought her closer to God. Most of the music she wrote involved putting the liturgy to music. The last song she composed was “Hymn to St. Hildegard,” and she composed two Mass settings in 2011 when the translation changed. According to Duenne, Schenk composed most of the music that appears in the sisters’ prayer books.

People can still hear Schenk play during the morning and evening prayer services at Hildegard Health Care Center on the monastery grounds and occasionally during a Mass in the monastery church.

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