My father, Vilem, was first introduced to Mary in 1933, when he performed Schubert’s Ave Maria on the violin at his high-school graduation.
Although the beautiful melody was a favorite, he never knew the translation of the words or realized their prayerful significance. His mother, however, knew the words. And as she listened from her place among the audience, she cradled a secret about her son — whom she called “Bill” — and wondered if she would ever tell him. Her decision would come in 1945.
Early that year, Dad met my mother, Agatha, while the two were serving at the U.S. military base in Biloxi, Miss. Mom was a fervent Catholic and inspired Dad — whose parents had left the Catholic Church before he was born and never raised him in any faith. One day, as Dad was sitting with Mom atop the seawall overlooking the bay, Dad asked Mom to teach him the Rosary. From the first Hail Mary, he discovered a relationship with Mary and entered into a new life of prayer (he is shown in a family photo with a Mary statue).
Ironically, Mary was Dad’s greatest obstacle as he prepared to enter the Church. During their engagement, he argued with Mom, unable to accept certain Marian dogmas. Unconvinced, he finally presented his misgivings to his quick-witted instructor and military chaplain, Jesuit Father William Connors, who resolved Dad’s dilemma with a swift reply, “Don’t worry, Bill. You’ll understand all of that after you become a Catholic!”
Won over, Dad was confirmed in the Church on the Solemnity of the Assumption. The Marian connection was a lovely surprise, but the revelation he received from his mother a few weeks earlier was even more so. “You won’t need to be baptized,” she told him. “I had you secretly baptized a Catholic when you were a baby.” For the first time, Dad realized that although his father — disillusioned by politically embroiled Church leadership while still living in Czechoslovakia — would not have approved of his baptism in infancy, his mother had retained the faith and provided God’s grace for her son.
In his book The Secret of Mary, St. Louis de Montfort describes Mary’s maternal role in our interior life:
“We must have habitual recourse to Our Lady, becoming one with her and adopting her intentions, even though they are unknown to us. We must become an instrument in Mary’s hands for her to act in us and do with us what she pleases, for the greater glory of her Son.”
According to his musical gifts, in a special way, Dad became Mary’s instrument: as a maestro for the young. For 37 years, he taught as a professor of music at the University of Washington and opened up the world of music to thousands of students. With natural enthusiasm and a penchant for storytelling, Dad’s classes were some of the most popular.
But his 28 years as conductor of the Seattle Youth Symphony were the highlight. Later, he described the moment he first stepped onto the podium in 1960, watching as disgruntled string players covered their ears to shield the overbearing sound of the brass, and explained, “I said a quiet prayer. I dedicated the orchestra to Our Lady and asked her to bless us and to encourage me to produce a really fine orchestra.” There were no miracles, no shortcuts. Persistent, Dad taught, drilled, humored, maintained high standards and expected the best. Finally, playing at a level never thought possible, with Dad, the young players poured out their hearts in life-changing performances — myself included.
As a 13-year-old, seated among the violins in 1972, heaven seemed to open as the music tapered to a whisper, and we reached the sublime conclusion of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10.
Later, curious about what Dad did backstage before concerts, I asked him, “Were you reviewing the score?” Smiling, he responded: “I went into my dressing room, turned off the light and prayed the Rosary.”
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. You will always be my inspiration.
Jennifer Sokol writes from