Sr. Emily (Mary Victoria) Rokas, C.S.J.
July 4, 1924 — September 13, 2015
Sr. Emily (Mary Victoria) Rokas, C.S.J. entered this world as the sound of fireworks permeated the landscape and their brilliant colors lit up the sky, on July 4, 1924.
She was received into the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph from LaGrange, Illinois on August 15, 1943. Her musical talents were quickly identified and she was enrolled in the Chicago Conservatory majoring in piano. She earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. To her piano skills she added voice, dance, and organ and nurtured her enthusiasm for learning, throughout her life, by participating in seminars and conventions.
She spent her entire religious life as the principal pastoral musician and organist at the LaGrange motherhouse and taught music at a number of the elementary and secondary schools her congregation sponsored. She directed the novitiate choir and taught Gregorian chant to her fellow sisters.
At her funeral she was credited with introducing the congregation to the liturgical movement and preparing them for the liturgical and musical reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. Her funeral tribute included references to the fact that as the Council’s many liturgical changes were eventually implemented, the community “hardly blinked an eye” having been so well prepared and informed. Sr. Pat Bergen, C.S.J. a member of the community’s leadership team, declared, “Who among us can forget Sr. Victoria and her classes on the writings of Virgil Michel?” Emily was an avid reader and familiarized her sisters with an endless stream of the latest resources, insisting that the community keep pace with the history of liturgical reform and the latest opinions.
When the community decided to build a new chapel, Emily was sent on a tour of various European countries to study and experience the finest organs available. As the new chapel was built and completed during 1968 and 1969, she oversaw the building and installation of a magnificent Noack organ (Opus 44) that graces the motherhouse chapel to this day. Sr. Emily worked closely with the congregation’s Mother General at the time, Mother Walburga, C.S.J., herself an accomplished organist and cellist, and Fritz Noack, the instrument’s builder. She invited Grigg Fountain from Northwestern University to be a member of the organ building committee for which Richard Proulx was a consultant. She took upon herself the difficult and challenging task of raising the necessary funds to build the instrument. Sr. Emily’s family was among the generous donors. Fritz Noack himself inscribed her father’s name on the largest C pipe. The instrument has been featured in a number of articles and included in various local organ tours.
In the mid 1960’s Sr. Emily was appointed to the Archdiocese of Chicago Liturgical Music Commission. She then became one of the founding members of the Music Staff of the Archdiocese of Chicago Office for Divine Worship that was formed after the Second Vatican Council replacing the Music Commission.
Sr. Emily served on numerous Music Staff committees—often as chair—for a number of the various choral festivals, cantor conferences, children’s choir festivals, and other music programs the Office for Divine Worship offered throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. Participants by the hundreds took part in these important events, which contributed significantly to the implementation of the liturgical music reforms that the Vatican Council mandated. Most notably she was a member of the music committee for Chicago’s first papal mass, which was celebrated in 1979 at Grant Park, with Alexander Peloquin conducting and Pope, (now saint), John Paul II presiding. Sr. Emily’s contribution to the musical life of the Archdiocese of Chicago was significant. She hosted numerous workshops at the LaGrange motherhouse making good use of the Noack organ and the distinctive acoustical environment, tuned for the musician’s ear, that she and Mother Walburga worked so hard to create in the motherhouse chapel.
Her generous life of music ministry also included collaboration with her colleague Sr. Mary Ricardo, C.S.J., herself a gifted violinist and teacher. Together they sponsored well-attended Orff and Suzuki summer camps for elementary students that took place year after year. After Emily’s sabbatical in 1993, Sr. Miriam Rose, C.S.J., an accomplished voice teacher, joined Emily and Ricardo. Together they formed a music school offering piano, violin, and voice lessons for the young and the young at heart. The program continued until 2011. Emily was skilled at identifying gifted piano students whom she introduced to organ study. These fortunate students were privileged to experience and explore the splendid chapel instrument. Later in life Sr. Emily went on to direct “The Golden Tones”, a secular choir of elderly residents drawn from the local area. As the years passed, with Emily and her sisters’ welcoming spirit, countless aspiring music students and lovers of the art of music of all ages passed through the doors of the noble LaGrange motherhouse.
The list of music Emily requested for her funeral was more than a collection of her favorite songs. Selections were identified by liturgical season and the final selections were determined as appropriate for Ordinary Time when her funeral took place. She also requested organ accompaniment and left instructions that the assembly was to be offered the privilege of singing ALL the verses of the various hymns! The choir consisted of singers from Our Lady of the Woods Church in Orland Park, Illinois, Infant Jesus of Prague Church in Flossmoor, Illinois, and members of the St. Joseph community all under the direction of Emily’s dear friend Nancy Schoenberg. Numerous other friends from around the Archdiocese joined in the music making including the cantor, Christine Tamani, a long-time friend and fellow member of the Music Staff. Fr. Robert Oldershaw, the founding chair of the Music Staff, offered the final commendation as composer Steve Janco led the assembly in his rendition of “Saints of God”.
Tribute prepared by Michael A. Cymbala with help from the Congregation of The Sisters of St. Joseph, LaGrange, Illinois.