When Tracy Resseguie commissioned Washburn University history lecturer and lyricist Charles Anthony Silvestri to write a song about his great-grandfather, he had no idea that would lead to an accidental homecoming and a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
But that’s exactly what happened.
Resseguie, the music director at First Presbyterian Church in Lawrence and the director of choirs at Staley High School in Kansas City, Mo., along with his family, 43 students and 10 chaperones, are on their way to Norway to perform “Over Havet,” the piece originally commissioned three years ago.
The four-stanza song, with lyrics by Silvestri and music by music theory and composition department head at Bob Jones University and Kansas University alum Dan Forrest, means “across the sea” when translated from Norwegian. It chronicles the path Resseguie’s great-grandfather, Peter Mandius Nerland, took from his home in Finnoy to the United States and eventually into the eternal sea of the afterlife.
“Without his sacrifice I wouldn’t be doing what I do. My kids wouldn’t be here,” Resseguie says.
The tour will make stops in Oslo, Lillehammer, Voss and Stavanger before arriving on Finnoy, the island where Nerland grew up until he emigrated at age 16. With the help of Silvestri and another trip coordinator, Resseguie was able to find the church in which Nerland was baptized. The choir will perform there on their last stop before coming back to the U.S.
The trip will conclude with a performance inside the Great Hall at Ellis Island. For many, including Nerland, Ellis Island was both the literal and metaphorical gateway into the U.S., where immigrants went for inspection before entering the country. This performance is one of the first — if only — times that a choir has been allowed to perform inside the historic space. Making this happen wasn’t easy. Resseguie reached out to Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., and used a connection he had at the White House in order to secure the necessary permits.
But considering the sacrifices his great-grandfather made in order to get here, leaving his family and everything he knew behind for the chance of a better life, Resseguie didn’t give it a second thought. More than a school trip, Resseguie sees this journey as an opportunity to connect with a part of his family history he had only previously known through second-hand stories and photographs.
“It all started with a story,” Resseguie says. “I think it’s a beautiful way to say, ‘Thank you.’”