CHISHOLM — The Rev. Frank Perkovich — known as Father Perk across the Iron Range and beyond — is being remembered as a priest who “loved people and reached out to them in their pain and confusion.” Those are the words of fellow retired priest and friend, Rev. Charles Flynn, who said on Tuesday, “To paraphrase the title of his biography, he has polkaed all the way to heaven.”
The creator of the beloved Polka Mass died Monday at his home in Chisholm, where he was born in 1928. He would have turned 90 on Christmas Eve 2018.
Flynn said, “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.”
Flynn added, “His Polka Mass was based on the music of the ordinary people, not on some elite, boring, upper class adagio. I shared many fine meals at his manse over the years.” In Father Perk’s 2004 book, Flynn said the Polka Mass “reached out to his own people as well as to many nationalities precisely because it was folk music, of the people. It added greatly to the spirit and gaiety of the liturgy and quickly captured a national audience,” adding a popular polka phrase, “O La, O Lee-O!”
A Chisholm School classmate of Father Perk, Betty Klancher Williams of Chisholm graduated with Father Perk in 1946 and they have remained friends over the years. “Since we were in middle school and all during our teen years, he said he was going to be an undertaker. He was a delightful man to be with — very spiritual, but so ordinary. After he retired, he worked as a priest on cruise ships. He enjoyed doing that. Our 72nd class reunion we had at his home,” Williams said. “His death is very shocking.” He often shared meals with Williams and her family — and when the class would get together every month, they would take turns preparing lunch. “It was his turn now,” she said. “He was a very generous man. He did a lot of things and paid for everything. We felt he was part of our family.”
Frank Erjavec of Fayal Township remembered Father Perk with fondness. Erjavec, just a few months younger than Perkovich, is an original member of the Polka Mass-ters, who sang at the Polka Mass. The Polka Mass started in 1973, when Frank Strlekar of Eveleth brought a tape he wanted Perkovich to hear. Father Perk loved it, and the fame of the Polka Mass in the early 1980s reached all the way to the Vatican in Rome. And Perkovich and musician Joe Cvek and the Polka Mass-ters had an audience with the Pope.
Erjavec said, “He was always jolly, but when he was serious, he was really serious.” Father Perk was born to a Croatian father and a Slovenian mother. When he became pastor at Resurrection Church, formerly Holy Family, in Eveleth, his ability to speak Slovenian served him and his parishioners well — “he could hear confessions,” Erjavec said.
Father Perk’s theory, said Erjevec, was that “I’m not going to be a judge. Let God judge you.” After his tenure at Resurrection, he became pastor at St. Joseph’s in Gilbert, where he served until he retired.
“He had friends all over,” Erjavec said. “He said he was going to Cleveland this fall.” Over the years he made many trips to the city known for the love of polka music.
Funeral arrangements are pending at the Rupp Funeral Home in Chisholm.