Seminarian offers his gift of music to the church
On Divine Mercy Sunday last year, John Guerra, a 19-year-old seminarian at St. Joseph Seminary College, and his younger sister Olivia, a freshman at Mount Carmel Academy, were messing around on the family’s grand piano.
That’s the piano that replaced the one in their original Oak Park home, which became part of Lake Pontchartrain after Hurricane Katrina.
“I had never really used the piano before Katrina,” John said, “but I do remember seeing it blown up on the floor. The wood had expanded so much that it just popped open, and there were strings and keys all over the room.”
So after Katrina, when John’s and Olivia’s parents decided to stake a claim in New Orleans’ recovery, the family tore down its shipwrecked house and built a new one, where it’s 22 Mackie Shilstone steps up to the front door.
Even though neither child played the piano, the Guerras also decided to replace their grand piano, a nice sentiment to everyone except the piano movers.
“I just remember this giant Italian guy,” John said. “He was huge. He worked out a lot. He looked like a body builder, and he was in his blue Dickies uniform. He put this giant strap around his back and around the entire piano, and they took the legs off. It was all wrapped up tight. He put two wooden boards underneath it, and then seven men, including my father and his brother, pushed it up while the giant Italian man walked backwards up the stairs.”
John has no idea what the grand piano weighs.
“I don’t want to know, because I don’t want that guy to come back and sue me when he gets older because his back is probably destroyed,” John said.
One day in fourth grade, John finally gave in and decided to take piano lessons. His mother Alison could sing – she was part of a group known as the Cabrini Singers at St. Frances Cabrini Church – and she played a little piano.
At church every Sunday, John’s father Ramiro would bring 3-year-old John to a pew on the right side of the church, so close to the singers that he could reach out and touch them. John loved belting out the songs so much that Alison gave him a microphone, unconnected to anything, so that he felt like a choir member.
“I would hold him in my arms, and he would stand on the pew in front of us,” Ramiro said. “When the priest raised up the Host, he would mimic all the motions.”
“I remember Father Steve Bruno – before he was a priest – playing guitar for the group,” John said. “I remember the harmonies. I remember the music. I could sing those songs right now because, as a kid, that’s all I heard. I would hold my hands up whenever Father Joe Palermo would hold his hands up, because I wanted to be a priest. It was so embarrassing.”
His father turned a discarded refrigerator box into a “fort” complete with cellophane windows and furniture. “I said, ‘Thanks, Dad,’ and when he came back in the room 10 minutes later, I was saying Mass on it,” John said.
John grew up around music, especially when his father was finishing up his degree at the University of New Orleans and taking a music appreciation class.
“He had to listen to albums and albums of classical music, and that’s the music I love,” John said.
John took nine years of piano – through his senior year at Jesuit – and he became so accomplished he won several major competitions. But after his first semester at the University of Dallas, where he was one of the leaders of the praise and worship music ministry, he felt a call to make a major change in his life, deciding to discern a vocation to the priesthood.
“I always had it in the back of my mind, but I shut it out,” John said. “I wanted to be married; I wanted to be a dad. And then, I got a little too close to the sacraments to carry on as I was. I really felt the call in a strong way back to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, and to Archbishop Aymond in particular.”
So as the Guerra kids were tapping out tunes on the piano last year, they had no idea it would lead them to produce a new Mass setting – titled the “Mass of Mercy” – that will make its debut March 12 at Abbey Youth Fest. John would sing and play a few measures of the “Lord Have Mercy,” and Olivia would sing the harmony.
In the beginning, they never wrote anything down. That came later. They simply remembered the tunes in their heads.
“We had been listening to other Mass settings and we would say, ‘Well, that didn’t end as beautifully as it could have. They were really on a roll and then it just fell apart,’” John said. “We thought, ‘What if we wrote one that was just beautiful but also reverent?’ It was just my sister and I on the piano. It ended up so nice that we kept doing it and praying about it. We tried to make a Mass setting that anyone of any age would be able to enter into the liturgy and move closer to what the church actually wants us to do – to pray and participate.”
“It just turned out amazing,” Olivia said. “My brother is my hero. He’s just a source of God in my life. I couldn’t be more thankful.”
John sent the completed Mass of Mercy to the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat of Divine Worship and received the panel’s approval within three days. It’s now been copyrighted. Since John felt some of the settings sounded a little too similar to the “Mass of St. Ann” – a popular setting written by Ed Bolduc – he e-mailed the prolific composer, explaining his anxiety.
“He’s the guy who wrote the Mass I loved all through high school, and I never thought I would be in communication with him to get his feedback,” John said. “He told me not to change anything. He liked it. He said he wants to use it in his parish, so that was pretty cool.”
The one regret John has is that his late grandfather, Dr. John Altazan, a revered economics professor at the University of New Orleans, never heard his completed work. Altazan died last month.
At his grandfather’s Funeral Mass, John delivered the eulogy, explaining how his grandfather made a habit during his half-century teaching career of providing extra help to struggling students so they could succeed.
“My dad was one of those people he searched out and helped,” John said. “Apparently, I was there (as a baby) at my dad’s graduation when my grandfather gave my dad his diploma, and that must’ve been really cool. But he did that for all my parents’ friends.
“I will always appreciate the fact that he adopted my mother. He could have chosen any orphan, and he adopted my mother. That blows my mind. I really look up to him, and I miss him very much. When he was dying, we never got to share any of this new music. The thing he loved most was listening to me play the piano. He would just sit in his chair and listen for hours. He just loved it. He came to every concert and every single competition. He was there for everything. He was so proud. I think of him every time I play.”
How would his grandfather react if he had heard the Mass of Mercy?
“There’s this thing where he laughs and cries at the same time,” John said. “He probably would’ve done that.”