MUSICIANS MAKING A DIFFERENCE: +John Sutko, "He was always there."
The passing of John Sutko into eternity has deeply affected all those who knew, respected, and loved him. John was a pillar of Orthodox Faith and a truly dedicated Orthodox church musician. "He was always there," and he will continue to be there–an example of what service to Christ and the Holy Church looks like: tireless and enthusiastic work, endless giving and positivity, and humility. Memory Eternal to the Servant of God John!
IN MEMORIUM An Interview with Fr. Alexander Koranda, Dean of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Chicago, in Honor and Memory of the work and legacy of John Sutko. How did you discover the Orthodox Church? What was your experience growing up Orthodox? I was born to two Orthodox parents, who also came from Orthodox parents dating back generations. This was something that was very important to my family, as both sides of my family come from the Carpatho-Russian territory, where our faith was and still is constantly attacked and forcing conversions. When they came to America, they built a church on the south side of Chicago at 53rd and Western. This would become St. Peter and St. Paul Orthodox Church (currently in Burr Ridge, IL), which would be at the very center of the life of my family. My family founded that parish, and my parents met there.
Growing up Orthodox in this country has its challenges. I’m grateful that my family kept many of the traditions of the Church, especially my grandfather, John Sutko. I was blessed that having his influence and two parents that were Orthodox, there was not conflict in ideology or faith in the household. When it came to holy days and feast days, everything was uniform, there was friendship and familiarity. My grandparents on both sides grew up in the church together. They would get together as kids, and then their kids would do that, and so on. What was really impactful was the whole family singing folk songs around the table, or the Lord’s Prayer, or “Christ is Risen!” before a meal.
Everything was just done instinctively. There was no guessing or question. My grandfather would give the pitch and lead everyone in the singing! It was all I knew, and it is my culture. I attribute to my grandparents, especially my grandfather, my formation in the church. He definitely assisted me in my development. For example, he was always interested and involved in pan-Orthodox events. There was always an invitation for me to go with him; he’d pick me up and we would go to wherever the service was. His dedication, his excitement, and his interests were meaningful to me as a kid. I just loved being with him. And, of course, he’d take me to parks, to movies, and we played together. Later on, we’d go to all sorts of classical concerts together. We supported all the arts that way. What motivated you or made you decide to become a priest? This is a question priests get asked a lot, and most have an interesting story, but I, perhaps have one of the most uninteresting stories – I have never wanted to do anything else. It’s that simple. No moments of wonder, or of worry, or exploration. From the time I was two years old, I would walk around playing church, carrying icons, censing those around me, and singing. This was a calling that was always with me and has never left me. Certainly, I have plenty of moments of feeling unworthy, or am even in disbelief that I am a priest, but my heart is with the Church. I love being there; serving, singing, chanting – it’s the place to be.
I always had a calling in the altar. I always loved serving. I’ve always been drawn to the beauty of the Church, and I believe that beauty is a universal language that can reach anyone’s soul- believer or not–and that transcends any philosophy, or ideology, or even your current personal relationship with God. I’m really big on liturgics, and I believe that the service should be beautiful. The vestments, the chanting, the incense, the candles–everything should all represent the Kingdom of Heaven.
With that said, even with this calling and gift, it was nurtured and cultivated by the many mentors that God put into my life. For example, Archbishop Job (Osacky), of blessed memory, had a most profound impact on my service in the Church. This would also include Archimandrite Athanasy (Mastalski), and Archpriest Alexander Atty who were my spiritual mentors during seminary, both departed this life. Fr. Alexander through Fr. Alexander Schmemann imparted onto us making the parishes paradise, and everything else taking care of itself. That resonated with me so much. I said immediately “That’s something I can do, and something I want to do.” But long before these giants were placed in my life, my grandfather, John Sutko, a choir director, would be the first example of love and service to the Church.
There were several mentors and “light bulb” moments that spoke to you in such a way that you knew this was your path and your calling. Oh! This is what I want to be about, making paradise on earth, because we are deprived of that. It will be my whole goal. When you can walk into a place with a very natural setting and natural lighting, and people tell you how amazing, and meaningful, and moving the service was, it reminds you that we have the True Faith. We have to commit to a high quality and give everything we have into it. The beauty of the service is very meaningful to me. I remember seeing a sign in the altar once–“serve like this is your first liturgy, your last liturgy, and your only liturgy.” So there’s a sense of “this had better be your best”. Did I give it everything I have, or was I phoning it in? Was I not attentive? I think about a lot of these things. This of course creates an intensity that I cultivate intentionally with my servers, the choir, anyone who has any liturgical operation in the Church. I have a certain expectation of what things should look like.
God has given me beautiful choirs, a beautiful and historic temple, I’m standing where saints have offered the bloodless Sacrifice-–it makes me elevate myself because of the intensity of this temple. I know the Lord knows my weaknesses; he knows that I need a certain level of intensity and that kind of challenge. When I stand where the first martyr of the Russian Revolution (St. John Kochurov) has stood, knowing what he went through to build this temple, there can, for me, be no excuses or shortcomings. Being at the Cathedral is something I take very seriously. This is the flagship of the Chicago and Midwest Diocese. And that’s why I’m much harder on myself and those around me. Everything I do here is in the memory of St. John and St. Tikhon, and it’s under the protection of our Holy Lady and Mother. All of that couldn’t be more meaningful to me, and it’s the standard for where we need to be. We still have to work to get there, but I like the challenge and I want to be a part of that. Everything–the liturgical life, the singing, the ministries–it can always be better and we just have to make the effort. I love your passion and dedication, and the life with which you flavor your responses. How does this impact your ministry? I simply believe the Holy Spirit guides me. I know and believe prayer works. I didn’t know how to be a priest, how to run a cathedral, but I’m somehow doing it. I don’t look at what I can’t do, but setting forth the vision and saying “we’re going to do it.” That intensity is definitely something I received, or rather inherited, from my grandfather. It’s a huge part of my ministry.
Here’s the thing: Church is our offering to God. Of course, we’re all humans and we’ll all run into difficulties. And I think: “I’m so disappointing in many things and I’m so far from God in so many ways.” But when it comes to Church and the services, that’s my thing, and so that should especially be offered at a high level. I take that very personally, being able to offer services at a very high level and then really dig into it during and afterward. We mess up so much in our lives and we fall short in so many areas, but when we walk into our Father’s House and we offer him worship and praise, this is something we can get serious about at the highest level we’re capable of. This particular moment might not be so great, or we might struggle a lot with this or that, but we can offer praise with the mindset of being before our Heavenly Father. Now is all about worshipping Him and being great because He makes us great through His greatness. How long have you been involved with Orthodox sacred music? What attracts you to this genre of music? The hymnography of the Church is very dear to me. I’ve been involved with Orthodox music since I’ve been in the Church. As a Christian, this is where we learn the truths of our faith, this is how we are comforted by our faith in times of difficulty and encouraged to continue in our spiritual efforts. It is the sound of the Church, and I love it because it’s real, what’s being sung is very real, it’s a beautiful part of our tradition, and it moves and washes over my soul. On a personal level, the music of the Church is very dear to me because it was a gift given, or shared rather, with me by my grandfather. It’s another gift from my grandfather.
When someone has a gift and their soul is so moved to dedicate their life to refining this gift, it immediately impacts those around them. This is how it was for my grandfather and music. His calling in music was similar to my calling in the Church; it’s something that was with him from as long as he remembered. His mother, Mary, had a beautiful voice which inspired him to sing at a very young age. He was in a children’s choir as a young boy, and sang as a really high tenor. He had a natural gift for music that made it easy and interesting for him. This would lead him to start directing at St. Peter and St. Paul Orthodox Church at the age of 18 and do it for over 60 years. He also taught middle school music for 35 years.
I share all of this because how can you not be a little interested, or even begin to investigate a bit when you are around someone like this. His love for music was contagious. I spent a great deal of time around my grandfather – more than any other family member – and his interests were also interesting to me. He never forced me to get involved with music, but through watching his love and dedication to the Church and music in general, I also wanted to share that experience with him.
His dedication and intensity was such that he would hold rehearsals all the time, and those were important to him. He would for sure be there regardless of who would show up. He hated missing rehearsals, especially if he was assigned to lead warm-ups. He wouldn’t be happy if he didn’t warm up or vocalize! (laughs). That was so important to him. The Church was the most meaningful in every aspect, and it was very close to both of you. It was neat–he’d go sing and I’d go serve. We had our own areas of interest in the Church, but our bond was that we wanted to be involved with the Church. If there was something exciting happening in the Orthodox world, we made sure we were there. I also picked up on the music of the Church on my own. I think the choir is one of the biggest tools of evangelism the Church has. “Humble, but great.” This is a phrase that we would often joke around about, among others, but this might be the perfect way to sum up his career. He focused and put his efforts on the local Church. Of course, as a young man, I wanted to know why he did not do more with his voice, singing or even with radio or something of that nature – because he was approached on many occasions – but he wasn’t interested in that path. He was most interested in dedicating himself to the liturgical life of his parish. In 60 years, he hardly missed a service. During his teaching career, he never took a day off – in 35 years! He was very dedicated to what he did, and more importantly, fulfilled. It was not important for him to do more or move on to the next thing. This has become more meaningful to me with time.
The “humble” part is attributed to the fact that he focused on the parish, the local Orthodox community. His work was very local, yet people throughout the country knew him because of his involvement with Orthodox music. He used to participate as an instructor in the St. Vladimir’s Camp in Ohio–a big event the OCA used to host–and he also traveled to St. Vladimir’s Seminary for conferences. He worked with mainly average parishioners with little to no music experience or vocal training. The “great” aspect would be that he focused on the parish, the local Orthodox community. This stability, having such a reliable source that is involved and focused on the real aspect of Church life is what inspires and encourages similar acts of dedication. My grandfather was the first to greet many people into the Church, including Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America when he first visited an Orthodox Church. My grandfather was providing rides to a young boy who would later become Archbishop Job of Chicago. We never know the impact of the small things we do. The fact that he was there, and dedicated made a difference, and there is fruit from that. What were some of his biggest and most favorite career accomplishments? For being more of a “local guy” as it were, this did not mean that his gift went unnoticed, if anything, this made him more of a pillar in the community. He was called on to direct some of the biggest moments in Chicago Orthodoxy including the consecration of Bishop Boris, the 1988 services commemoration the Millennium of Orthodoxy in Russia, the installation of Bishop Job, three patriarchal visits in the 1990’s including Patriarch Aleksy II, Patriarch Pavle, and Patriarch Dimitrios. He was even called on for various private events such as the wedding of Prince Arnold and Princess Renate of Windisch-Graetz, Germany, and others like that.
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the official English texts for all the feast day vespers and liturgies were being prepared by the Liturgical Commission of the Orthodox Church in America. He began to adapt all the vespers verses (stikhera, litiya, apostika) for the feast days of the Church in four parts and in their proper tones. This project took over ten years to complete! He loved Slavonic and thought some hymns should only be sung in Slavonic. There were some adaptations that he thought didn’t do the hymn justice, and he would have said just to do the music in Slavonic anyways.
My grandfather began converting handwritten scores into computer formatting. The fruits of his labors produced a Panikhida service book, a book of Christmas carols of Eastern Europe, a children’s choir book, and a Prostopinije of the Carpatho-Russian people.
He would regularly have concerts that would raise tens of thousands of dollars for the building fund of the new church that was being build, among other initiatives. He would also take choirs to sing at the Daley Center in Chicago and at Symphony Center. This was a way where he was able to share the Church’s rich treasure with a broader audience. This is very important.
I think it would be impossible to talk about his accomplishments without also including his voice. My grandfather accepted invitations to participate in various professional choirs as the lead soloist, chanter, and oktavist. This includes the Bach Society of St. Louis, Missouri in their presentation of Rachmaninov’s Divine Liturgy, Northwestern University, and the University of Chicago choirs during their presentations of Rachmaninov, Gretchaninov, and Kalinnikov vigils. He was very active and an original member of the Pan-Orthodox Choir of Greater Chicago, and various local ensembles. Finally, he was able to do all of this while maintaining a family life. A lot of Orthodox Christians- singers or not–knew who he was, and always had something heartfelt and positive to say about him. He had many friends, and there was never a choir who wasn’t excited to see him and ask him what he needed to sing with them. This is a great accomplishment. How did your grandfather define the role of the Orthodox church musician and the church choir? This is an important question. The dedication and inclusivity he brought to his ministry is what defined his role. Without a doubt. I have already spent some time on his dedication, but here I will speak more about his inclusivity.
My grandfather found a way to work with those who had little to no music experience and make them feel as if they were a most integral part of his choir. He built a community by making people feel valued and included by constantly inviting people to sing, chant, and participate in the music of the Church. He used his skill as a teacher and a musician to elevate all those who worked with him and within the Church. He worked with anyone who wanted to learn church music, and he’d train them. I remember this would frustrate me at times because I had my own convictions on who should sing, but now running a community, I see the importance of what he did. By taking this approach he brought people closer to the Church. Reading, singing these sacred texts can only have a positive effect on one’s soul. How would you personally describe your grandfather? How do you keep his legacy alive? When I think about my grandfather, I think of a man who was always there. He was always where he needed to be. He was at church directing for the services, sitting watching his grandchildren perform in a concert or complete in a sporting event. He was at the local parish dinner, or at a lecture supporting Pan-Orthodox initiatives. He was at the kitchen table, sitting with his beloved wife waiting to welcome family for their regular visits. It’s a powerful force in one’s life to have someone that is always there. And without a doubt, I will forever be able to hear his voice hitting octaves after certain arrangements.
I laugh because as I grew older, I kind of figured him out in some areas. Being a teacher never left him. The way he corresponded with singers and sent out notes, reminders, schedules–it was as if he was working with students and running his classroom. He had a level of professionalism that was unparalleled; he was there for everything. I would see everything he did, and I would think “he runs this like a school!” And he’d even take attendance (laughs). It meant nothing, and he’d never show people, but it was his habit as a teacher. Of course, after a service he’d go to coffee hour and socialize, but then he’d come back to the choir loft, clean up, set up the next service, and take roll call of his roster after the fact! That’s funny to me because that was just his habit as a teacher. I think that was really a big thing for him–using his skills as a teacher to work with and elevate his choir and use that educational form to help his singers appreciate the beauty and hymnography of the Church.
Keeping his legacy alive is kind of a funny thing for me, because in so many ways, everything I do, and even how I do things is what I learned from my grandfather. I always wanted to make sure that I honored my grandparents because of the great love and respect I have for them, and this is part of my offering to God.
There are some other practical ways that are meaningful as well. For example, on my YouTube channel, I post old recordings of his choirs or of him singing. My grandfather worked on a lot of different arrangements and compositions for the Church as well. I like posting choirs singing his arrangements. Another effort in the works is establishing a memorial fund in his memory. How exciting! How did this memorial fund materialize and what will it focus on? The memorial fund is currently being worked out, but the principal idea is to have it focus on funding various music projects in the Church. A main focus of my grandfather was on rehearsals and elevating the level of singing in the Church. I believe that we can do a better job with this, and so my hope is that this fund will assist in bringing professional church musicians to help choirs and musicians in the Chicagoland. For example, we could sponsor them to lead rehearsals, seminars, and vocal workshops for local musicians and choirs. Alternatively, you can fund a church musician to attend other events and learn from the experts. All of this would be in John Sutko’s name. What are some of your favorite memories of him? I can’t think of a meaningful moment in my childhood without my grandparents being a part of it – what a gift! We did a lot of things together, especially in the Church. Everywhere we would go, you would get an altar server and an octavist. Most couldn’t be any happier with this arrangement.
Other neat things would happen such as my grandfather being honored with the Synodal Award of St. Romanus on the day of my ordination to the Priesthood. Who could arrange such a thing other than our Lord? My grandfather sang and directed for my wedding and did the epistle for both of my daughters’ baptisms. These are important moments to me as well. I mentioned this earlier, but again, every low note he would sing that I was present would replace the last low note he hit as my favorite. My grandfather was always impressed with my range and how I can sing really high and really low, but, most importantly, he was most excited that I love music and that I was always involved in band programs as a low brass man, and in choral programs. Bass trombone is always my favorite! It reminds me of my grandfather, how I could impersonate him by going lower than all the bass instruments. (laughs)
I’d always laugh too when he’d listen to the classical music radio station here (WFMT, Chicago) and he’d always call in with the correct answer to the question the host would ask. He had their number posted on his desk! (laughs) The station eventually put a limit on callers being rewarded for submitting the correct answer to once a month. I would tease him that they did that because of him. What advice has he imparted to you? What advice would he give to the aspiring Orthodox church musician? I’m not always a good listener; I’m too proud. I am, however, very observant. Any words he did offer me was probably lost on my young and ambitious soul, but I watched and I learned. This has been the way I have done things my whole life. I was inspired by what I saw in my grandfather and what he did for the church and all of those who called on him. That has and will have a lasting effect on me over anything he could say.
In regards to what he would offer a musician in the Church, I think he would say do the best that you can, and then do a little more. Push yourself. My grandfather was never one to look for excuses as to why he couldn’t do things, but always found ways to work with what he had to glorify God and get what needed to be done. I think this is helpful because we don’t have an abundance of resources and singers in this country, but God has not left us empty handed.
This interview was conducted by Theodore Zajler, Society Board Member-at-Large. Mr. Zajler has assumed the role of Lead Editor of the newly-conceived Society Review. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Music Degree in Music History and Theory from the University of Evansville and is a tonsured Reader of the Orthodox Church in America. He is pursuing a Master of Music degree in Music Business at the University of Miami.