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Sister Sue Pietrus

Sister Sue Pietrus

Sister Susan “Sue” Pietrus died Sept. 13 and her Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated Sept. 17 with the Rev. Daniel Hopcus presiding.

Sister Sue, who entered the Congregation Aug. 23, 1975, professed first and perpetual vows Aug. 15, 1978, and Aug. 19, 1984, respectively. She was a beloved director of music at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College.

Sister Sue is survived by her father, Raymond, of LaGrange Park, Ill., and her sister, Nancy Barr, of Darien, Ill.

The following commentary was written by Sister Dawn Tomaszewski and given by Sister Denise Wilkinson.


A reading from the Journals and Letters of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin:

“They teach the various sciences scarcely known in our French schools, but they excel in music, which is an indispensable thing in this country, even for the poor. No piano, no pupils.”

You will NOT be surprised to know that this was Sue’s favorite quote from Mother Theodore.

How blessed we are that Ray and Florence Pietrus decided that their first-born child should take piano lessons. Thank you, Ray, for your part in nurturing Sue’s great gift of music and for the years and Saturdays you spent chauffering Susan and your other daughter, Nancy, from your south side Chicago home to the local Catholic school for piano lessons with Sister Marie. It seems to us that you and Flo and now Nancy and Nancy’s husband, Peter, have spent a lot of time traveling to and from concerts and musicals and more concerts and Christmas at the Woods dinners.

And how blessed we are that when Sue had designs of studying medical technology after she graduated from Aquinas High School, also in Chicago, Providence intervened in the person of Sister Cherubim, her piano teacher. Sister Cherubim urged Sue’s parents to have her make an audition tape and apply for a music scholarship at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. As Sue liked to tell the story, her parents would do anything Sister Cherubim asked them to do.

Of course Sue was awarded that scholarship. What began in the fall of 1968, then, was a 40-year love affair with Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, the Sisters of Providence and the Provident God who called her to use the talent she possessed to fill these Woods and our lives with the gift of her life.

We have gathered in this Church this day to celebrate her life, that life that has been snatched from us all too soon. We can scarcely believe that only weeks ago she sat at the piano in this church at the heart of the many Sister of Providence celebrations that marked our summer gatherings.

It was only months ago that she sat at the piano in this church and with her beloved chorale and Madrigal Singers provided music for the college’s alumni reunion, baccalaureate and Ring Day liturgies. The beautiful music of her Spring Concert is still echoing in this room. Whenever and wherever there has been music on this campus these many years, and in Rome for the beatification and canonization of Mother Theodore Guerin, Sue Pietrus has been at the heart of it. Sue Pietrus has been the heart of it.

Sue distinguished herself as a pianist and an accompanist while she was a student at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She herself was a Madrigal Singer—always a leader in the alto section. But nothing was more important to Sue than learning to be a teacher. From her first days as a student teacher to four weeks ago when she printed off her syllabi and packaged up all her supplemental educational materials to turn over to a successor because she needed to take a medical leave of absence, nothing has been more important to Sue than being a teacher.

She tells all her music education students that when she took her first job teaching elementary music at Costa Catholic School in Galesburg she couldn’t believe that she actually got paid for spending her days doing something she loved so much.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that she began her master’s degree in music education at the University of Illinois soon after she began that first job. She wanted to be a better teacher. No doubt the most important recognition Sue ever received was the Sister Mary Joseph Pomeroy Faculty Excellence Award from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. She was the first recipient of that award when it was established in 1990.

Sue left her first teaching position in Galesburg to return home to the Chicago area and a teaching job at Mother Theodore Guerin High School. Here she waited for the Sisters of Providence to lift their moratorium on admission to the community. She knew by then that she wanted to use the talent she possessed in service to God and the people of God as a Sister of Providence.

The Guerin years enabled her to wed her charism as a teacher to her love of choral singing. Her musical soul mate and sidekick in the music department at the time, Marty Morris, can attest to the cast of thousands of young women who were in Sue’s choruses. And it was never just about singing—there was singing and costuming and movement and instruments and decorations.

No, it has never been just about singing for Sue — one of her colleagues from over the years, Nancy Iberson, wrote in a get well card to Sue: “There are lots of people who wave their arms and conduct, but I always say, ‘Sister Sue is an exquisite artist and with each piece she touches lives.’”

Joining the Sisters of Providence in 1975 opened Sue to God’s providential touch in a new way. Now she was a woman with a mission and a community who encouraged her to use the talent she possessed to the fullest.

She never stopped. That sense of mission probably wore out her body, but never dimmed her spirit.

Her first mission as a Sister of Providence was Marywood High School in California. As if the regular teaching load wasn’t enough, Sue promptly started a chorus for the many foreign students living in the dorm there at the time. The mix of accents was incredible — Mexican students, Iranian students, Japanese students. This wasn’t just an after hours, let’s have fun making music chorus. These students performed in the concerts just like the regular choruses.

Perhaps Sister Adele Beacham’s comment to Sue in a get-well card says it best, “You can make a stick sing.”

Here’s what Sheila Galvin wrote about her experience as a member of the chorale here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, “Sue, you have mattered in my life. Even though I had no voice to brag about, your encouragement granted me permission to try anyway, to enjoy anyway, even though I am not the best. When others went to you and requested that I not be included in chorale you turned and said, ‘But she enjoys it’ and that ended the conversation. Those four simple words have left such a great impact in my life, I hold them close even today. And I thank you.”

Sue came to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College after Marywood High School closed in 1980, but not before she had endeared herself to so many of her students and colleagues. One of those students asked Sue to be her maid of honor when she married and, later, the godmother of her daughter. Three of those Marywood students are spearheading the establishment of the Sue Pietrus memorial music scholarship here at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College. One of those students, Mary Collins Dove, followed Sue to Saint Mary-of-the-Woods for college and was one of the many people praying at Sue’s bedside when she died Saturday afternoon.

Over the past 28 years, Sue’s focus has been Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College — with just a brief interlude at the University of Southern California where she completed the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in choral music education in 1993. That’s where she met fellow grad student John McIntyre, who now chairs the music department here at SMWC. John has been gracious enough to direct the Madrigals for our wake service and for the Mass of Christian Burial tomorrow.

Dr. Pietrus made women’s music the focus of her dissertation at USC. At SMWC, she created the annual High School Women’s Choral Festival. She had already invited the women’s choirs of the local high schools to join her own chorale and Madrigals to perform at this year’s Christmas Concert.

Under Sue’s direction, the Madrigal Singers have toured extensively from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, including a 1990 performance in Carnegie Hall, New York, a 1999 tour in Germany and Austria, a 2001 performance with the National Chamber Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and 2003 and 2007 tours to Italy.

Sue was proud of all of these accomplishments, and what you had to love about her was that whatever she was working on at that moment was always the best ever. Every Pop Concert was the best ever; you just had to come to this musical because it was the best ever.

At the heart of all of these accomplishments was Sue’s great heart, an extravagant heart that showered you with love as well as “stuff.” There were gifts bags full of candy and who knows what else for all occasions for the chorale, for her students, for her family, for her LGU, for the guard at the front gate and for all the godchildren and adopted nieces and nephews of her life. When she went on vacation with the Tomaszewski clan, there was always a bag filled with craft projects for the kids to work on accompanied by an array of everyone’s favorite candy to help you through the project. After her godson Ben learned that Sue had died, he told his Mom that he had a hankering to go to the dollar store in her honor. Her spiritual director suggested her giving gifts was her way to stay connected to the people who meant the most to her because then she wouldn’t lose them.

Her connections to people were fiercely strong — from her doctor, Karla Zody, who became one of her best friends, to Helen, Karla’s granddaughter, who also became one of Sue’s best friends.

It is easy at a time like this to believe that we have lost Sue, that our lives will now be bereft of her laughter and music.

The God of our lives says otherwise. Your presence here today says otherwise.

So does Nell Trainor, a colleague and friend, in her get-well card to Sue. “You have always been a role model for me and a precious part of the Woods Legacy. Thousands of young women have been enriched by your patience, diligence, precision and exquisitely beautiful artistry — you already live forever.”

Sue lives forever.

Margaret Mullin’s parents wrote this to Sue last week. “Thank you for being a Mother to our child. She has not forgotten and neither have we.”

Sue will not be forgotten.

Sister of Providence Patty Wallace wrote, “You have given an incredible gift of your music and yourself to our Congregation. Through you I have come from a noisy guitar player to a musician.”

Through Sue we have become.

And through us, her song will be forever.

Sue, we can think of no better way to say thank you for all you have been to us than to let your Madrigals express their love, our love in song.

“For Good” from Wicked

I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason, Bringing something we must learn; And we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them, And we help them in return. Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true; But I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.

Like a comet pulled from orbit, as it passes a sun. Like a stream that meets a boulder halfway through the wood. Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better but, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

It well may be that we will never meet again in this lifetime, So let me say before we part so much of me is made of what I learned from you. You’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart. And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have rewritten mine by being my friend.

Like a ship blown from its mooring by a wind off the sea. Like a seed dropped by a skybird in a distant wood. Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

And just to clear the air, I ask forgiveness for the things I’ve done you blamed me for. But then I guess we know there’s blame to share, and none of it seems to matter anymore.

Like a comet pulled from orbit as it passes a sun. Like a stream that meets a boulder halfway through the wood. Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better. I do believe I have been changed for the better. And because I knew you, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.

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