A Song in Their Hearts

This article was posted on: November 16, 2023

The Smits family brings joy and love to their community through decades of Christmas caroling

In Rudolph, home of the St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church Grotto and Wonder Cave, Irene Zakroczymski Smits has always been a parish member and lived within a three-block area of the church. She attended the Catholic school and was taught by the sisters through the eighth grade. “Sister would line us up in music class by soprano, alto, tenor or bass. That is where I learned I was an alto,” said Irene. 

Though Irene and her husband Donnie are the same age, he was raised on a small farm just outside of town, and they never met until the ninth grade when Irene attended the public high school in Rudolph. Donnie proudly stated, “She was my high school sweetheart.” They both shared the love of singing and sang duets in the Wisconsin School Music Association Solo and Ensemble and school musicals. 

They shared their love of music with their five children from an early age. “Harmony,” Irene says, “I just love it.”  A favorite song the family harmonized in the car while traveling was the 1960s hit “Lonely Little Robin” by the Browns. Reminiscing, Irene and Don immediately started singing,  

“There’s a lonely little robin in a tree by my door
And it waits for its mate to return evermore
So, remember, please remember, that I’m lonely too
Like the lonely little robin, I’m waiting for you.”

Sadly, Irene reflects, “Donnie had a beautiful voice, and it is fading like mine.” 

Glory of God
Though the mountains may fall and the hills turn to dust,
yet the love of the Lord will stand
as a shelter for all who will call on his name.
Sing the praise and the glory of God. 

Irene and Donnie’s children, Jackie, Julie, Jane, Jill and Craig, graduated from Assumption Catholic High School, where they all played an instrument and sang in the choir, but most importantly, said Julie, “we learned how to read music.”  

Irene’s parents were not singers, but she and one of her sisters sang for years in the church choir for funerals and weddings. It wasn’t long before all the Smits children sang in the choir, and now, eight times a year with the guitar choir. Donnie joined them in the choir at Easter and Christmas Masses as well. 

Now soft-spoken and with a few health issues, Irene can no longer make the trip up the stairs to the church choir loft. However, her heart and soul are there as she listens intently from the church’s nave below. “Singing is so important,” said Irene. “We were told singing was God’s way of teaching us to pray. We all need prayer.” She said, “You know, I never really thought about the words when I sang. Now, I read the words.” 

How Great Thou Art
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing
He bled and died to take away my sin 

Caroling with a Song and a Prayer

With an idea that started with Craig, the family has been Christmas caroling, bringing music to the Rudolph community, for 30 years. Sara, Craig’s wife, said, “Most years every family member would join unless they had a major conflict or were sick.” Even in the early years, Irene’s three siblings joined them as they made a special stop to sing Christmas carols at their parents’ house. “Now,” said Sara, “the grandchildren start asking in September for us to set the date so they can mark their calendar. It is their favorite day of the year.” 

The four-generation family carolers, now numbering into the upper 40s, ride in an open custom-built wagon, lined with lights, that seats 25-30 people. They have sung in all kinds of weather: rain, sleet, freezing cold, with and without snow. 

Irene stated, “Talking about [caroling] is overwhelming, but doing it is very easy.” Not being as young as she once was, she now rides in a warm vehicle. “It was so much fun riding in the wagon, but now it is too cold.” She says with a chuckle, “I’m cheating.” Donnie enjoys, “being on the wagon with all the grandkids,” but last year, he rode shotgun with their son-in-law, Ken, who pulls the wagon with his truck.  

New guests who carol with them experience some light-hearted teasing during the evening of their first year. Last year, two new boyfriends joined, and the Smits said to them, “You know, when it is your first year, you have to sing a solo.” “Yeah,” replied Jane with a laugh, “I don’t think they believed us. It’s all about having fun.” When it’s snowing or if snow is already on the ground, the little kids are more focused on the winter wonderland than the caroling. In the early years, those kids who were jumping in the snow, being silly and pushing each other over are now the parents of the kids jumping around. “It is fun to watch them,” said Irene. 

Silent Night, Holy Night,
All is calm, all is bright.
Round yon Virgin, Mother and Child.
Holy infant so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace, Sleep in heavenly peace

Julie started saying, “Some of the houses we visit may have lost a spouse that year.” Jane agreed and finished Julie’s thought by adding, “Even though it is hard to go there, as we have in the past, we know they are alone and by themselves and usually will request a favorite Christmas song. It is bittersweet.” Jackie, the oldest, said, “We leave those homes with many hugs and tears.” She told her siblings, “I always thought getting a message out to the community would be nice. Are we missing someone who would like us to come caroling? Perhaps, somehow, they could get a message to one of us and not be afraid to ask.” Through the years, with generations coming and going, the family no longer knows all those in town who may need some holiday cheer. 

The Smits had been Christmas caroling at Carol Kowieski’s home before her husband became ill and passed, 14 years ago. Carol shares warmly, “[The Smits family’s] joyfulness and giving from their hearts brings cheer to people who may be a little down at Christmas.” Carol especially has enjoyed watching the entire Smits family evolve over the years. She said, “What a blessing and gift of singing they have given to our parish and to the community.” Irene mused about how the night ends, “With smiles on our faces, we leave our mark at most places.” Irene and Donnie’s family has one last emotional stop in loving memory of Irene’s parents, Marion and Helen Zakroczymski, at the St. Philip All Souls Cemetery. There, the family sings Silent Night before heading to a family member’s house to share a meal. “That is always touching,” reflects Irene over the cemetery visit. “We pray they are watching over us.”

Story by Cathy Greenseth
Published in the November/December 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine

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