By JOANNE FOX
One priest’s love of music will live on for students in the Bishop Heelan Catholic School system.
Father Gerald Zensen ministered in parishes in the Diocese of Sioux City for almost 70 years. He was also a talented musician and played the trumpet with passion, even performing “Taps” at funerals for veterans.
Father Zensen’s nephew, Michael “Chops” Barry and his wife Jean of Danbury, recently donated four trumpets to the Holy Cross – Blessed Sacrament School band department in their uncle’s memory.
Stephanie Janssen, band instructor at Holy Cross, expressed her sincere thanks to the Barrys for their support of the school’s band program.
“We are so grateful for this generous donation from Michael and Jean Barry,” she said. “We have students who are in need of an instrument at this time.”
Father Zensen passed away in 2015, at Maple Heights Nursing Home in Mapleton. He was 90.
The Merrill native was ordained a priest for the diocese in 1949, at the Cathedral of the Epiphany. Father Zensen’s assignments were in Emmetsburg, Estherville, Granville, Mount Carmel, Whittemore, Dow City, Maryhill, Remsen, Corpus Christi Parish in Fort Dodge, Immaculate Conception Parish in Sioux City, Oto, and lastly, in Anthon. Upon retirement, Father Zensen made his home in Oto until he became a resident at the care facility in Mapleton.
Father Z – as he was fondly called by many – was a charter member of the Dixie Daddys, a Dixieland band that played all over Northwest Iowa.
In a 1986 interview in The Catholic Globe, Father Z and John Grossman – who played bass and guitar – recalled the informal “Friday night jam sessions” at the Immaculate Conception rectory. That segued into regular sessions at the former KD Stockyards Station, Sioux City, and ultimately, gigs.
“We do anything,” Father Z said. “We play for any dog fight or fire sale.”
The duo were soon joined by piano player, Bob Lee; trombone slider, Father Paul Kelly; banjo picker Father Patrick Walsh and Grossman’s daughter, Renee, on the violin, performing “everything but rock music,” Father Z clarified.
Dixieland, swing and jazz were hallmarks of the group, although Father Kelly preferred not to compare Father Z to famed trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Doc Severinsen or Wynton Marsalis.
“I would say his style was closer to Clyde McCoy,” he said, referencing the late American trumpeter, best-remembered for his theme song, “Sugar Blues.”
“Father Zensen better reflected the Big Band style of trumpeting, and that was Clyde McCoy,” he added.
Outfitted in red and white striped shirts, white pants and “pizza hats” – as Father Z called them – the band purchased their trademark, a $25 fire engine, for a simple reason.
“Because we’re too old to march,” Father Zensen emphasized.
In parades, the musicians rode in the red, 1947 Ford fire engine, which would get “20 miles to the gallon uphill and 30 miles to the gallon downhill,” Father Z reported.
Principal Michael Sweeney also expressed his gratitude for the donation of trumpets to the band program.
“I had the pleasure of getting to know Father Zensen when I was a teacher at Danbury Catholic School,” he said. “It is great to see his love of music continue at Holy Cross School.”