Wieczorek has a passion to play for God
Wanema Wieczorek said she was destined to use her musical talents for the glory of God. " 'My heavenly father knew me when I was in my mother's womb, and He named me.' That's straight from the Word," Wieczorek said. Wanema is a Cherokee Indian na...
Wanema Wieczorek said she was destined to use her musical talents for the glory of God.
" 'My heavenly father knew me when I was in my mother's womb, and He named me.' That's straight from the Word," Wieczorek said.
Wanema is a Cherokee Indian name that means "singing grass." Wieczorek's mother had a Cherokee Indian girl helping her in Oklahoma just before Wieczorek was born. The girl's name was Wanema.
In English, "Wan" means wanderer and "Ema" means caring one or nurse, she said.
Wieczorek, 75, was raised a preacher's daughter and lived in 15 states, and later became a nurse to provide for her children. She doesn't believe it's a coincidence her name foreshadowed much of her life.
The longtime musician moved to Mitchell in 1976, joined the Mitchell Wesleyan Church choir shortly thereafter and started playing piano for the church in 1984. She retired about five years ago, and now plays occasionally -- a lifetime spent honoring the conviction she first felt as a little girl to play for God's glory.
Wieczorek began picking out melodies on a piano at age 5. She soon began adding harmony, and three years later she had an intense spiritual experience at the family piano.
She began playing "Jesus Loves Me," the first song she learned to play, then moved on to "I've Got a Mansion Over the Hilltop." As she began playing "In the Sweet By and By," Wieczorek said she became overwhelmed.
"All of a sudden, a feeling came over me," she said. "I turned around at the piano bench and knelt. We were taught to kneel because it was an act of reverence. So I did, and at that time, I can't tell you any more than I knew in my heart that my gift was going to be used for God."
Wieczorek insists she is no one special, that she has no special favor with God. She simply had a gift bestowed upon her, and knew she had to use it.
"God entrusted it to me," Wieczorek said. "It became a dedication, a commitment, a passion."
Recognizing Wieczorek's passion, her mother purchased a piano correspondence course, and by age 13, Wieczorek had learned to play the organ by ear.
"Several women in the church had taken lessons and could not master the organ," she said. "So I would go over and mess around on it."
A young woman from Idaho was visiting the church where Wieczorek's father pastored that summer. Wieczorek said she was enthralled by the woman's swing foot method -- a Southern swing beat. After a full afternoon of learning with the woman, Wieczorek sneaked to the church each afternoon for several days to practice by ear, until her dad heard her playing one afternoon.
"He said, 'If you can play like that, you'll play for church on Sunday,' " Wieczorek said. "Mother was quite relieved, because she couldn't pick it up. We had a talented pianist in our church, too, but she couldn't pick it up, either."
Despite that, the pianist was accommodating. Since Wieczorek couldn't play by written notes, the pianist would suggest keys in which Wieczorek could play for each song. She attempted to take piano lessons from several teachers, but said most became upset with her because she didn't really read notes.
When her dad began pastoring in Bayard, Neb., Wieczorek's mother took her to a doctor's wife, who taught piano lessons.
"She said, 'Let Wanema play for you. She can't read notes, but she can play anything she hears,' " Wieczorek said. "So I played for her and she said, 'Mrs. Cummings, do you realize what kind of talent your daughter has?' She was the first teacher that really understood me."
To this day, Wieczorek still doesn't like to play by written notes, but will do it if necessary. She prefers to play from memory, mostly in a Southern gospel rhythm that hearkens back to her Southern upbringing. She is also influenced by country, jazz and blues.
When Wieczorek started playing for the Wesleyan Church, she learned many old hymns, for which she developed a love later in life. Despite playing the hymns in a traditional service, her Southern background always works its way in.
"I can't help it. The little swing comes into even 'A Mighty Fortress is Our God,' " she said with a smile.
'If I didn't have Him, I don't know what I'd do'
When Wieczorek came to Mitchell in 1976, her father had just resigned as pastor of the Assembly of God Church on North Main Street. Wieczorek moved to Mitchell with her five children while going through a divorce.
"I was a broken mess," she said. "I thought I was not worthy to play piano any more."
There was a period of several years Wieczorek did not play in church. She would play for her children at home, particularly Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans." But, she still felt strongly she had blundered too badly and was not worthy to share her talents with the church.
It wasn't until she attended a concert in Sioux Falls with her then-future husband, Glen Wieczorek, and a friend that she realized she'd been wrong.
Dino Kartsonakis, a prolific religious pianist, performed that evening, and told how Jesus spoke to him through a song.
" 'Jesus never forgets. Jesus never forgets. What he has planned for you will all come true. Because Jesus never forgets,' " Wieczorek sang.
Kartsonakis said he married the wrong woman, got divorced and felt like his life was over. When she heard the song, Wieczorek cried.
"From that moment on, I knew Satan had lied to me and that everything was straight between me and the Lord, and I started playing again," she said.
She picked up her deep faith in God's direction for her life and played for the Wesleyan Church. The church welcomed her with open arms, she said, and never judged her for her past.
Since the evening of the concert in Sioux Falls, Wieczorek and Glen maintained a friendship. Wieczorek went on to complete training to become a licensed practical nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital, which is now Avera Queen of Peace Hospital, so she could support her children. For a short time, Wieczorek moved her children to Alcester, where she also worked as a nurse, but soon came back to Mitchell.
"I was so homesick for my friends in the Wesleyan Church, I couldn't stand it," she said.
She continued her career as a nurse in Mitchell and it wasn't long after she returned that Glen asked her out to supper. In 1987, the couple married.
"Coming back to Mitchell took me back to that place where I was at 8 years old," Wieczorek said. "If God wasn't with me, if I didn't have Him, I don't know what I'd do."
Wieczorek has experienced three major religious highlights in her life that helped her grow in her faith. At 18, she went to a private Christian college in Minneapolis. During her time there, she started working at the Billy Graham Institute and was able to experience that people from all denominations could work together. She also met Billy Graham during her work there.
When she became older, Wieczorek met David Wilkerson, author of "The Cross and the Switchblade." Wilkerson was an Assembly of God preacher who left the church to minister to gangs, drug addicts and other lost souls on the streets of New York. She played piano for his crusade when he was in the Appleton, Wis., area.
"The third highlight came three weeks ago," she said.
Gene McDonald, a renowned gospel singer, visited Mitchell Wesleyan Church for a performance, and Wieczorek played the prelude, offertory and alter call music for the event. She saw McDonald watch her play during the prelude and it made her nervous.
During the offering, Wieczorek played her swing method version of "Amazing Grace."
"Gene got up and said, 'Stay at the piano,' " she said. "He said, 'I will fly back to Mitchell any time to hear that lady play.' "
Wieczorek was in shock, but then McDonald asked her to play and sing a few more songs with him in front of the congregation -- "I'll Fly Away," "Softly and Tenderly" and "Amazing Grace."
"I thought I'd died and gone to Heaven," she said with a laugh. "I felt for so long I was on the shelf because the traditional music is hardly in any more."
But, she's still quick to point out the purpose to her playing.
"I don't entertain. I don't perform. My sole purpose in piano playing is to bring glory to God because of the encounter I had with Him when I was 8 years old," she said.
Through the years, she has taught many children and adults her musical technique. In recent years, however, Wieczorek has taken fewer students and currently only teaches two who have great promise and have mastered her technique. Those two children, along with two former students, will perform with Wieczorek tonight at the Carnegie Resource Center for Christmas at the Carnegie. The Mitchell Barbershop Chorus will also perform.
The entrance fee is a bag of groceries or a donation to the Mitchell Area Food Pantry. The show is from 7 to 9 p.m.
If there's one thing Wieczorek hopes people walk away with after hearing her play, she hopes they say, "That lady knows how to worship."