Being a servant leader requires putting the interests of others above your own. Living our life as a servant of God is one of the most important teachings of our Faith. One method of serving the people of God is through music. Music can reach even the darkest places, entering the hearts of the faithful and bringing hope.
As music coordinator at St. James the Greater Parish in Eau Claire, Mary Kolstad embraces this ideology to the fullest, while her husband of 30 years, Mike, walks at her side.
One of Mary’s favorite songs is “The Servant Song.” “That’s what it’s all about,” Mary exclaims. “I am your servant; what can I do to help those who attend the liturgy; what can I do to draw people to sing?”
Mary was raised near Greenwood, surrounded by her grandparents and several cousins. She has fond memories of her family visiting her grandmother on Sundays. “She had a piano and loved to hear everyone sing. If it weren’t for my grandparents, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at today.”
Music is hereditary, as Mary’s mother also loved music. They both played piano and sang in the church choir. Mary attended parochial school and also played for Mass on Friday mornings. “That was our entertainment. We’d go to church and were part of the community, involved with anything that was musical. That’s what we did. We were a musical family who could sing and dance. All my friends would sing for the county fair. It was fun!”
I like to believe I’m teaching my grandsons about Faith through service. – MIKE
Mike was also surrounded by music at a young age and enjoyed singing and playing the guitar. He grew up in Menomonee Falls and was raised in the Lutheran faith. “I always loved music,” Mike said. “Whether it was folk groups or rock and roll in high school.” He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Stout and joined the Stout choir. Upon graduation, he began a 30-year technology education teaching career in Elk Mound.
While teaching full-time, Mike worked with the Chippewa Valley Theater Guild and then the Eau Claire Children’s Theater for 25 years, building theatrical sets and casting in the shows. At the time, Mary was a member of the theater’s Board of Directors and also worked in the human services field. Their mutual love for theater and music crossed paths and brought them together.
While dating, Mary was a member of the St. Olaf Parish choir. Mike offered to come sing with her at her Catholic church. “At that time in my life I was looking for a church home,” Mike recalls. During a volunteer fair at the parish, a large banner was hung that read ‘Welcome Home.’ “I looked up at the banner and thought, ‘Cool, I’m home.’”
Mary’s one condition to marriage was that Mike had to embrace the Catholic Faith. “I attended RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) classes with Mike and learned a lot too,” Mary exclaims. “I think every married couple and everyone considering joining the Catholic Church needs to go through this. Being raised as a cradle Catholic, I took so much for granted.”
This being the second marriage for both Mike and Mary, their children were older, which gave the couple more time to support each other and their passion for music, theater and Faith. Mike encouraged Mary to obtain her master’s degree, which led to a 15-year teaching career at Chippewa Valley Technical College in business management, prior to her retirement.
Faith and helping others have always been important to the couple. “We both grew up with alcoholic fathers. Our childhood stories are almost identical,” Mike recalls.
“I always had my grandparents and cousins,” Mary adds. “They were givers and supporters. We would have starved without them. The community also took care of us.”
The Kolstads ended up at St. James the Greater Parish when Mary was asked to play for the children’s choir. That led her to playing in the parish’s Sunday choir and embracing a new Faith home. Mike also plays guitar and sings in the choir. The parish is home to at least six different choirs, including talented parishioners of all ages. Under Mary’s direction, college students play violin, piano, bass, flute and drums.
“The youth are dear to my heart,” Mary boasts. “I like everyone, and all are welcome.” The support of their pastor, Father Tom Krieg, is crucial to Mary’s success.
Mike and Mary’s love for children has a wide reach. They’ve opened their hearts and home to 10 foster children over the past six years. “They didn’t get to our house because they won the lottery,” Mike comments. Two of the children were abandoned, another abused and others have drug, alcohol or criminal pasts. “All you need to do is love the kids.”
The knowledge Mike gained in theater set construction has carried over to the parish. A handyman of sorts, he helps out whenever building repairs or technical work is needed. “My Faith is very important to me. Jesus is always at my side.” His love for his Catholic Faith is passed on to his grandsons. They recently assisted him in pew repairs and other needed improvements. “I like to believe I’m teaching my grandsons about Faith through service. They love it and I love being here. There are things that need to be done and someone has to do it.”
With pandemic restrictions limiting choir participation in the liturgy, Mary and other members of the parish became creative for Christmas 2020. A virtual choir video was made, which included its talented choirs and musicians. Recording began before Thanksgiving and was then not only shared with parishioners but also played at Mass throughout the Christmas season. The Kolstads have conquered life’s challenges by sharing their Faith, service and compassion with others. “Hopefully, my Faith shines through,” Mary remarks. “I enjoy working with such talented people.”
Story and Photography by SHARON SLIWKA
Published in April 2021 Catholic Life Issue