Gifts from God are meant to be shared. Gus Ruhrold says it is that belief that has led to his longtime service as a church cantor.
“If you have a gift, you have to do something with it. You have to give it back,” he says. “I’ve always tried to be close to God, and this was how I gave back.”
Gus, now age 93, has been singing in church since he was a child and has been a cantor for nearly 60 years, the last 31 of them at St. Gabriel Church in Winterport, which is part of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Bangor. Gus, who used to be part of a much larger congregation in New York, says St. Gabriel is the perfect fit for him.
“These people are just loving people. They’re a great crew here,” he says. “What’s good about a small church like this is that it is intimate. The people are close to one another, and this congregation sings! They really sing, and that’s what it’s all about, getting them to sing.”
Ellen Van Vranken, the choir director, attributes that active participation to Gus.
“One cannot help but be motivated to respond to Gus’s enthusiastic invitation to join in song,” she says.
Raised on Long Island, New York, Gus studied opera when he was a teenager, something to which he says he always felt drawn.
“I went into New York to see operas, and my teacher wanted to be an opera star so that kind of led me into it,” he says. “He was a fantastic vocal director. He knew all the opera stars in New York. I think he was a baritone, so was I, and I think he kind of saw himself in me.”
Gus remembers the year his teacher booked the famed Starlight Roof of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel for his students’ recital.
“That was one of the first times I sang opera. I sang a duet with this girl, and I still remember it,” he says, humming the music.
At age 21, Gus got married, and just a month later, having been drafted, he entered the U.S. Army, serving in Captieux, France, during the Korean War.
It was while in the Army that Gus, who was brought up in the Episcopal Church, became Catholic. He had begun attending Mass with his future wife while they were dating and says Catholicism just made sense to him.
“That’s how I learned about the church. I became friendly with a priest, and he kind of took me under his wing, and he gave me instructions, and I became Catholic under his tutelage,” he says. “It made sense to me that it has been around so long, and everything else was an offshoot.”
Gus was baptized and made his first Communion while at Fort Dix in New Jersey, then received the sacrament of confirmation while he was overseas. Seventy-two years later, his faith remains a central part of his life.
“The Eucharist is what draws me. In every family, there are people who have left the faith, and I think, ‘How can you possibly leave the Eucharist?’” Gus says. “I understand that people have to do what they think they should do, but nowhere else can you absorb God. He becomes part of your body and your soul. Where else can you get that?”
Gus remembers singing at Masses and at G.I. shows when he was serving in France. Music would not, however, become his professional career. Instead, he worked in the insurance industry, while also serving as a cantor, then a paid position, at his home parish in Amityville, New York.
“I wanted to sing where I could sing in a religious atmosphere. It was important to me. That was more important than singing at a pub or something like that,” he says.
Gus sees music as an integral part of the Mass.
“They say music is twice praying so that is part of the prayer of the Mass. It is praying,” he says.
Gus and his wife moved to Hampden, Maine, in February 1991 to be closer to their daughter. Just seven months later, he was singing the psalms and leading the hymns at St. Gabriel Church. It’s a place he loves to be.
“This is my happy place,” he says. “God’s here. What better friend can you visit?”
After nearly six decades as a cantor, Gus’s voice is as strong as ever, something for which he takes no credit.
“That’s the Holy Spirit. That’s not me. Every time I’m in the car on the way to church on Sunday, I say, ‘Holy Spirit, sing with me today.’ And He does. He does,” Gus says.
That’s not to say that Gus doesn’t prepare. He gets the hymns for the Sunday Mass the week before and spends time practicing.
“I have an island in my kitchen, and I have my music out there. I leave it there all week, and all week, I’m looking it over to make sure I know what’s going on,” he says. “I don’t like not being prepared.”
In addition to his music, Gus also writes poetry, something he started doing when he was in his 80s.
“It came from the Spirit. That’s all I can say,” Gus says. “That was a gift. I had never had anything to do with poetry at all, and now, I must have thousands of them at home.”
Reflecting back, Gus says he thinks he started writing poetry as a way to cheer up his wife when she was ill.
“I don’t know if I had that in my mind that that was the reason, but I think, looking back on it, that probably was it — to cheer her up because she was in a lot of pain,” he says. “There were so many times I wrote a little note beneath them to her — ‘Love you doll,’ things like that.”
A poem he wrote after her death reflects both his love for her and his deep faith. It begins: “One day, my love, you and I will walk hand in hand into the kingdom, trading the tears, the care, and the pain for joy, for wonder, for freedom. We’ll converse with the saints and martyrs and, with guardian angels, take flight. At the banquet table, we’ll taste milk and honey. Peace will prevail and all will be right.”
Gus says his poems often have a religious theme. He says he drew some of his inspiration from Sarah Menkin, a fellow St. Paul the Apostle parishioner, who shared her poetry in a monthly newsletter and online.
“I like the kind of poetry where it rhymes, and I got some of my ideas, I guess, from Sarah,” Gus says. “She was an inspiration to me.”
Sarah, who was featured in the March 2021 issue of Harvest, even did some design work for Gus’s poems.
Sitting in his favorite chair in his den, Gus says he writes poetry just about every day, often revisiting some of his previous work.
“I look at some and say, ‘I don’t like that,’ and I revise it. You grow and say, ‘I think this would be better if it were different,’” he says.
Gus’s daughter shares his poems through Facebook, and although people have suggested gathering some together in a book, Gus says he’s not sure it’s a project he wants to take on.
“I’m kind of old for that stuff, but yes, that would be good if I could do something like that. If it happens, it happens. If not, it wasn’t supposed to happen,” he says.
In the meantime, Gus will keep writing and singing and sharing both gifts with those around him.
“He is truly a treasure,” says Van Vranken.