“It’s hard for me to believe it, because I don’t feel that old,” he said. “But the good Lord has blessed me with the wherewithal and physical ability to play my violin.”
And there lies the secret to his long life: music.
Every Sunday morning, the nonagenarian accompanies the adult choir on his violin at St. Mary by the Lake Parish in Racine.
His music is the culmination of a lifetime of playing that started when he was 15 years old and the late Dominican Sr. Mary Benedict taught him the instrument.
“She was great – just something else,” he said. “She made me want to play all the time.”
According to Jeff Rasmussen, St. Mary music and worship director for 33 years, Kovara is a faithful and faith-filled member of the choir, playing during the 9:30 a.m. liturgy every week.
“About 10 years ago, he approached me one Sunday and told me he played the violin,” said Rasmussen. “He wanted to know if we were interested in having a violin player. I told him, ‘Sure.’ He showed up the next week, I gave him the music we were singing, and he proceeded to play it without even needing to practice with us. He was an excellent sight-reader.”
A widower for more than 30 years, Kovara originally drove his Volvo station wagon to and from church each week, approximately a 2.5-mile drive each way. Although he is still mobile and has good eyesight, a minor accident on the way to Thanksgiving Mass a few years ago convinced him to voluntarily relinquish the driving responsibilities to his son, Dan.
“Now Dan drives Erv to the 9:30 liturgy, where he plays his violin,” said Rasmussen. “And although the choir is off for the summer, Erv and my flute player usually play most summer Sundays. I think it is the ‘grace of God’ that keeps him going. God has a mission for him, as he does for all of us. I believe his is sharing his gift of music with others, especially SMBTL parish.”
Kovara has a different explanation.
“I think my bad disposition keeps me going,” he said, laughing.
Kovara and Rasmussen realized that they share much more in common than their Catholic faith and their love of music. Both men learned to play their instruments from Sr. Benedict.
“I believe I mentioned to someone in choir around the time of her death, how it was she who asked me in seventh grade if I would be interested in learning to play the organ, so as to accompany the students at the Friday 11 a.m. Mass while I was attending St. Patrick Grade School,” Rasmussen explained. “I told her I was interested, as I had been taking piano lessons from the Dominican sisters since the first grade. That is what started me on my path on my 48 years in music ministry. Erv overheard me talking and mentioned that Sr. Mary Benedict had been his violin teacher, having taken lessons from her at the Siena Center. I commented how ironic it was that we were both involved in music ministry and Sr. Benedict was our common denominator.”
While members of the parish are astounded to learn the age of the talented Kovara, he is a bit self-effacing of his prowess.
“People do come up to me and tell me that they are surprised that I am playing and surprised at my age. Physically, I am lacking some ability and I can’t do quite as well as I used to, due to some arthritis,” he said. “I should practice more and would sure like to play better than I do, but the Lord gave me the physical ability to play as well as I can and I accept that, and God also made me healthy to live my life as it is.”
The retired Johnson Wax employee and farmer was married to Emma, who died in 1970. The couple had six children, one of whom died in an auto accident. He said he has too many grandchildren to count, but there are a lot of them.
“My wife is the one who actually brought up our six children and if it wasn’t for her, we would not have had the family we had,” said Kovara. “She gave me something that can never be taken away from me and God gave her to me.”
Kovara resides in Caledonia in the Parkview Gardens senior living center, where he lives on his own, but is grateful for the expert cooks who provide meals in the residents’ dining room.
“That is the best part – because I really don’t care to cook. My apartment is small, but that’s OK; physically, I am unable to do that much,” he said, adding, “I just take the bitter with the sweet and try to at least show a little ability and love for my neighbors and family and my children. I see my family quite often and I am very blessed by that.”
In gratitude for the blessings of his life, Kovara is insistent on giving back in any means he is able. Whether it is donating funds toward music materials or being available in his music ministry, he attributes everything to God and is thankful for each day.
“I know that there are other people who are giving time and effort to play in the choir, and I am just one of the parish members who tries to correspond with that and help the Masses continue,” he explained. “I figure that I am making a little contribution and I hope that I am sharing my faith through my music to the parish. I am blessed by being able to attend St. Mary by the Lake. I love the people there, the administration, the priest and especially our choir director, Jeff. He is one great human being and I would do almost anything for him to make things well.”