Detroit — Elizabeth Esqueda has sung for big crowds before — a Detroit Lions Thanksgiving Day game and a couple of Detroit-based college football bowl games included.
But she will be the first to admit nothing compares to being a soloist at November’s beatification Mass for Blessed Solanus Casey.
“Just the very special nature of the event was overwhelming at times,” Esqueda told The Michigan Catholic. “I was very excited, but also nervous. My colleagues said that it’s just a liturgy, but I was nervous because this was so unique.”
Esqueda and her fellow soloist, Coleman Ward, are the two Detroit-area musicians who cantored at the beatification Mass. While all in attendance were amazed by the performance of the choir and musicians, it was Esqueda and Ward who were front and center.
“My head was pounding almost the entire time,” Ward said. “I looked up and saw my face on the Jumbotron and freaked out inside, but couldn’t show it to the crowd.”
Ward and Esqueda were asked to be soloists for the Mass by Joe Balistreri, director of the Detroit Archdiocesan Chorus, a huge honor both of them admitted didn’t sink in initially.
“I didn’t know how big a thing it was yet,” Ward said. “I remember when Mother Teresa was canonized, and we had a big Mass at the cathedral. So I was thinking, ‘OK, done that a million times.’ But then I remember thinking, ‘Whoa, this is happening at Ford Field. Thousands of people are going to be at the stadium and watching online.’”
A couple months before the Nov. 18 beatification, Ward and Esqueda were handed the music that would be sung at the liturgy, but neither one of them knew what exactly their roles would be.
“When I got the music I thought, how am I going to sing all of this?” Ward said. “I knew I wouldn’t be the only cantor, but didn’t know who’d I’d be cantoring with, or what I would be singing. I had to look at all of them and be ready.”
In a way, Ward and Esqueda have been preparing for the beatification Mass all their lives.
Ward, now the music minster at Nativity of Our Lord Parish in Detroit, grew up at St. Leo Parish across town, where his father, Keir, was the music minster for 25 years. After St. Leo merged in 2013, Keir Ward played the organ at Sacred Heart Parish in Detroit in addition to playing at what Coleman Ward describes as “more than 100” churches throughout Metro Detroit.
“I was always part of the choir — the kids choir or adult choir — at St. Leo,” Ward said. “With my dad working as a musician, we played just about everywhere. With me, my brother and sister, the whole family was known as the Ward family singers. We always kept busy in some aspect of the church with music.”
As for Esqueda, she has been cantoring in Metro Detroit for 20 years under the influence of her mother, Carole Mihalo, a music minister at St. Christopher Parish in Detroit.
After receiving a master’s in voice performance at the University of Michigan, she now sings at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament as one of the cantors on staff.
Despite being a lifelong Metro Detroiter, Esqueda felt she didn’t know much about Blessed Solanus when Balistreri asked her to sing.
“I have two toddlers, so my focus was really on being with my young family, so I wasn’t too familiar with the event,” Esqueda said. “Even through I’m active in the Church, hadn’t come across Solanus Casey, maybe in passing. So I wasn’t familiar with the event when Joe asked. I just knew Joe is a great musician, and I wanted to be part of anything he was doing.”
After being asked to be a soloist, Esqueda started to learn more.
“As I started to describe to people what I was doing, I educated myself a little more,” said Esqueda, who also sings at a synagogue in West Bloomfield. “I wanted to be a witness to my friends in the Jewish community where I was singing.”
Learning more about Blessed Solanus and the impact of the Capuchins also led Esqueda to prepare spiritually for the occasion.
“I haven’t been to confession in a little while, and that was a way I tried to prepare myself for the event,” Esqueda said. “I was doing a wedding at St. Ambrose (in Grosse Pointe Park), then went to the Solanus Casey Center. I spent time in front of the tomb and then went to confession. I found the response (of the priest) extremely helpful and sincere.”
Esqueda and Ward both were overwhelmed at times during the Mass, each saying it was a pleasure to serve with the choir and fellow musicians under the direction of Capuchin Fr. Ed Foley.
For Ward, singing “Taste and See” during Communion was a particularly poignant moment.
“‘Taste and See,’ the one I had to sing alone, that did wonders for my beating heart leading up to it,” Ward said. “Listening back to it – my mom in the choir recorded it – I hear myself and can point out where I finally got comfortable in the song.”
In addition to having the opportunity to give glory to God, Esqueda and Ward each had their own personal contributions they were excited to showcase.
Esqueda was afforded the opportunity to sing Spanish, a big deal for her after marrying into a Spanish-speaking family. Ward felt honored to represent the black Catholic community as a symbol that Blessed Solanus is a gift for all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Detroit.
Esqueda and Ward said their part in the beatification Mass has had a great impact on their ministries and their lives.
“This whole process has so many layers for me as a singer, a Catholic, a Detroiter, on how much of a blessing Solanus Casey’s beatification was,” Esqueda said. “I learned more about his life, and that is a gift that is going to keep on giving. He touched the lives of so many, and I like to think mine and Coleman’s singing touched the lives of the people who were there. I hope gave them the courage to share a beautiful aspect of our faith.”