The Rev. Frank Perkovich, the Catholic priest who gained fame by popularizing the polka Mass, has died.
According to his oral history, Perkovich was born Dec. 24, 1928, in Chisholm and still resided there. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1954.
He celebrated his first polka Mass May 5, 1973, at Resurrection Church in Eveleth, where he was pastor at the time, even though those closest to him were dubious about the idea.
“My mother begged me not to do it,” Perkovich recalled with a chuckle.
“She said, ‘My son, what will the people say?’”
It wasn’t the first fusion with the liturgy of the music Perkovich had grown up listening to. According to the National Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame, Father George Balasko had debuted the Polka Mass in Lowellville, OH the year before.
But, Perkovich took it to a new level. He connected with a band led by fellow Iron Ranger Joe Cvek, and the group combined traditional melodies with religious lyrics, many of which were composed or adapted by Cvek’s mother, Mary.
It proved a popular combination, spawning an album, “Songs and Hymns From the Polka Mass.”
“That album has probably been the most-widely sold polka album of the last 50 years,” said Joe Valencic, the president of the National Cleveland Style Polka Hall of Fame, to which Perkovich was inducted in 2012. “It’s sold around 100,000 copies.”
Valencic said Perkovich became a big part of the polka community. He even assisted at the funeral of polka music icon Frank Yankovic after his death in 1998.
Perkovich, who was retired from the active priesthood, went on to author a book about his experiences entitled, “Dancing a Polka to Heaven.”
“Father Perk,” as he was affectionately known, died July 16, 2018, at his home in Chisholm, where he was born on Christmas Eve 1928.
“To paraphrase the title of his biography, he has polkaed all the way to heaven,” said the Rev. Charles Flynn, a fellow retired priest and friend.
Flynn added: “He visited people in their homes and nursing homes. He was usually quite humorous and was the last of a colorful generation of priests in our diocese. He was never dull and enjoyed controversy. We are much poorer today at his passing.”
“His polka Mass was based on the music of the ordinary people, not on some elite, boring, upper-class adagio,” Flynn said of Perkovich’s signature liturgical achievement.
The Second Vatican Council in the 1960s paved the way for many changes in the Roman Catholic Church, including broadening the types of music permitted in Mass. The council said the music should reflect the age and cultural background of parishioners.
In the early 1970s, Perkovich thought polka music might work well at Mass — especially since many in his Resurrection Catholic Church parish in Eveleth traced their roots to Slavic countries.
A polka Mass has all the elements of a regular Mass. The difference is the words of the liturgy and hymns are sung to familiar polka tunes or waltzes. The polka instrumentals are played in a slower, more reverential fashion.For example, “Barking Dog Polka” became a hymn called “We Offer Bread and Wine.” “Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain” became an offertory song called “At This Sacrifice.” The recessional is an instrumental version of “Iron Mike Polka.”
“I was the one who brought it to another level,” Perkovich told the Duluth News Tribune in 2004. “I went on the road with it.”
While still maintaining his parish work, Perkovich traveled with Cvek’s polka band and a group of singers to churches in such places as the Twin Cities, Detroit and Chicago. They also visited Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Hawaii and Yugoslavia. They helped pay their travel expenses by selling albums of their polka Mass music.
Perkovich had a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings about the polka Masses. The Masses also drew television reporters, including one who did a feature story that was broadcast on a national news show.
People used to ask Perkovich what the pope thought about the polka Mass. So Perkovich decided to ask him.
“The Vatican or bust,” he said.
In April 1983, Perkovich, the polka musicians and a tour group of 70 people from the Iron Range region flew to Rome. On April 20, Pope John Paul II addressed a large gathering in St. Peter’s Square. Perkovich and the musicians were part of a group granted access to the pope after the address. The musicians played polka Mass music and Perkovich gave the pope one of their records.
The pope said the polka Mass was very good, Perkovich said.
“I went to Rome to prove a point,” Perkovich said. “If the polka Mass was good enough for the pope, it was good enough for anyone.”
Three days after meeting the pope, Perkovich was thrilled to be able to celebrate a polka Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. He called it the Carnegie Hall of churches.
Perkovich was born to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother. When he became pastor at Resurrection Church in Eveleth, his ability to speak Slovenian served him and his parishioners well — “he could hear confessions,” said Frank Erjavec, of Fayal Township, who often sang at polka Masses.
After he retired, he worked as a chaplain on Royal Caribbean cruises, sailing the Caribbean, Alaska’s Inside Passage and the Mediterranean.
Funeral arrangements are pending at the Rupp Funeral Home in Chisholm.