This article first appeared in the Morrison County Record and is republished with permission. This is eighth in a series of articles on the history of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls.
By Julene Ley, Guest Writer
St. Francis Music Center opened its doors in the fall of 1979 with four teachers offering private and group lessons in piano, strings, winds and dance. It all began when a three-sentence news item appeared in the town paper announcing that a “doctoral researcher was available for keyboard lessons after school hours.” Within a week, 40 students signed up for lessons.
Amazed at this response and the evident need for music instruction in this rural area, Sister Cecilia Schmitt took over the second floor of the former St. Francis High School and the Music Center was born. Sister Cecilia soon added a Keyboard Festival and several theater productions to the activities at the Music Center. In fall 1985, a music store was added since there was no place to buy music for miles around.
Over the years the Music Center expanded, adding more teachers and more programs. Thanks to a grant from the Laura Jane Musser Fund, a financial aid program was established to make certain that all children with a desire could study music. Other programs included a yearly Piano Camp, arts programs for students with special needs, composing, touring companies, plus several workshops with Heart of the Beast, the Children’s Theater, James Sewall Ballet and many other groups.
As area needs changed, the Music Center focused more on teaching and less on presenting. Since there are no orchestral string programs in any school in Morrison County, two string orchestras were formed. Several singing groups were added including the St. Francis Community Chorale, Brothers in Harmony, and Kids Sing! URock was launched in an effort to bring area youth together to form bands of all kinds. As a result of the outdoor concert for URock, the Green Fair Folk Festival was initiated. This yearly event brings over a thousand people to St. Francis campus to celebrate music and to promote caring for Mother Earth, a core Franciscan value.
In 2009, the Music Center was awarded the Sally Ordway Irvine Award for Music Education. This is the highest arts award in our state, rarely given to organizations beyond the metro area. A grant from Catholic Health Initiatives in 2014 helped create URock Against Violence, a mentorship program that uses music to promote positive behavior and encourage youth to turn away from chemical abuse, suicide and bullying.
The Music Center is a sponsored ministry of the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls with support from the Minnesota State Arts Board, Five Wings Arts Council, Laura Jane Musser Fund, local businesses, service clubs and many individual donors. Robyn Gray, the director, oversees a faculty of 17 professional teachers. Sisters Adela Gross and Bernice Rieland also work at the Music Center and provide a variety of services. The curriculum offers private and group lessons for students of all ages in piano, organ, guitar, orchestral strings, voice, band instruments and percussion. Classes are offered in dance, gymnastics, preschool music, theory, composition and music therapy. The Music Center operates a recording studio with state-of-the-art software. Over 400 people come to the Music Center each week to participate in lessons, classes or the orchestras and choirs.
St. Francis Music Center is a unique school for the arts with a distinction of being the only community school for the arts in the nation located in a rural community the size of Little Falls. St. Francis Music Center believes that music and the arts are key to nonviolence, to celebrating our many cultures and to finding the good in humanity.
Thousands of youths and adults have studied music at the Music Center over the years, another blessing the Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls brought to Morrison County.
Photo Caption: The Ricks, a musical family from Browerville, created their own gospel band while taking lessons at St. Francis Music Center in Little Falls. Pictured are (from left): Elijah, Greta, Quinn and Annika Rick.