ELY—The discovery of iron ore in the late 1800s inspired Slovenian settlers to move to Ely in search of a better life. The immigrants brought with them the harmonious music of their native land, which continues to play an important part in enriching regional culture.
The late Mary Hutar was responsible for organizing the Ely Slovenian Chorus after she retired as organist and choir director of St. Anthony’s Parish in 1969. She recognized the importance of preserving the heritage and traditional music of the Slovenians who immigrated to Ely and northern Minnesota. Many chorus members were direct descendants of the early settlers in Ely.
The final performance of the Ely Slovenian Chorus was given at a Christmas celebration at the Winton Community Church in 2009. Membership had dwindled from an average of 30 singers to about a dozen by that time, making it difficult to continue. Although the live group performances have ended, the wonderful memories and rich Slovenian heritage will live forever by virtue of recordings made throughout the years.
That traditional music was captured in 1972 and 1974 on two long-playing (LP) records recorded by Sound 80, a recording studio from Minneapolis. The second LP was recorded at St. Anthony’s Church in Ely and contains traditional Slovenian Christmas songs that depict the true meaning of Christmas.
Ron Forsman was an active participant in the chorus from the start. At 14-years-old in 1969, he was the youngest member when he joined, and remained so until 40 years later when the chorus made it’s final curtain call.
Forsman said he’s concerned that young folks are not engaged in preserving the Slovenian heritage. He blames that on too many electronic distractions like computers, MP-3 players and iPods. “The young generation doesn’t understand the joy of making their own music,” Forsman said. Music has been at the forefront of Forsman’s life, starting in seventh grade with participation in the Drum and Bugle Corps. He initially played the bugle and mellophone, then quickly advanced to drum major and instructor. He also played the trumpet in the high school band for a short time and participated in the Ely Color Guard.
Forsman said he truly loves singing, beginning as a 12-year-old in St. Anthony’s Choir. At one time he sang in four different choirs with four distinct ranges: bass, baritone, tenor and countertenor. His inspiration came from his mother, Flossie, and Mary Hutar who took him under her wing to teach him how to project his voice and sing solo. The tutoring inspired him to participate in school and community musical productions.
Forsman naturally progressed to directing the chorus after 1986 when Hutar passed away. He also directed the women’s Slovenian octet during their public performances. Frank Shepel became director in 1988 when Forsman started driving a truck over the road. Shepel’s sister, Fran (Shepel) Tornes, became the accompanist. Forsman participated in the chorus as a tenor or bass singer whenever he was home.
The entire chorus traveled to Slovenia during the fall of 1996 for two weeks. A tour company made arrangements for the chorus to perform almost every night throughout Slovenia, which is about the size of St. Louis County.
The music they performed was the identical music brought to Ely in the late 1800s. Forsman recalled the impact their music had during a performance in Chernobyl. “There was a group of elderly women that broke down in tears while we were singing,” he said.
When questioned later about their crying, one woman responded, “We have not heard those songs sung that way in many years and they bring back floods of memories.”
He has another special memory during a chorus performance at a Mass celebrating the 500th anniversary of a church. The Ely Slovenian Chorus performed in the main sanctuary while the parish choir sat up in the choir loft.
“We sang a couple songs and all of a sudden the parish choir joined in on one of the songs and the harmonies filled the church,” he said. “
Shepel turned toward the choir loft and the parish director turned sideways to direct both choirs at the same time. “I will never forget that moment,” Forsman added.
The trip to Slovenia bears a special significance for John and Mary Jo (Gornik) Pouchnik. John joined the chorus in the mid-1970s and had known Mary Jo since high school. She was planning a trip to Slovenia to be a godmother for a relative. John told her about his upcoming trip with the chorus and convinced her that it would make sense for her to tour the whole country with the chorus while she was there. She did just that, but left the group for a few days to attend the baptism and visit relatives.
Upon her return to the group, John and Mary Jo decided they had been “just friends” long enough. Forsman was John’s roommate and reflected on the experience. “I saw less and less of John as the trip progressed and was wondering where my roommate was.”
John moved to the Twin Cities after the tour to be nearer to Mary Jo. Six months later they married and have enjoyed a happy life together. John continued to sing with the chorus and Mary Jo joined as well, both very proud of their heritage.
“Singing with the chorus has helped us pronounce the words correctly, as well as understand them,” said John.
The Ely Slovenian Chorus continued under the leadership of Shepel until his passing in 2002. Forsman resumed the position of director through the 2009 final performance in Winton, and expanded their exposure with performances at “Tuesday Night Live” in Ely, Slovenian picnics, Ironworld and numerous heritage and holiday parties. “We always had people wanting to hear us and we all loved to perform,” said Forsman.
He added that they still get to hear the music today. The choir director at St. Anthony’s Church recognizes the need to add Slovenian music to their repertoire, especially during holidays. Forsman also currently hosts the Saturday morning polka show on WELY radio and sneaks in a traditional Slovenian song now and then.
“Just hearing those tight harmonies and the chords in my head as I am singing with a group is pure joy,” he said. “And I am blessed to have met such wonderful people in the chorus.”