Singing God’s praises through life

St. Gregory cantor George Tichi celebrates 90 years

After George Tichi left the operating room following bypass surgery to alleviate blocked arteries in 2000, the first words out of his mouth was a Troparion.

“When I was coming out of the anesthetic, I vaguely remember I was singing the Troparion from Theophany,” said the cantor at St. Gregory in Upper St. Clair, Pa. of 45 years.

“The nurses and doctors were startled; (they) wanted to know what I was saying. The nurse there recognized the melody as being a religious melody.

“I still know the Slavonic rendition of it today. I can sing it off the top of my head.”

After turning 90 years old on May 24, George is still using his voice to praise God.

The coronavirus situation didn’t put a damper on his birthday party, as 34 honking cars filled with family and friends from St. Gregory drove past his house in Mount Lebanon, Pa.

“I was so very surprised. You could have bowled me over. They kept it a secret from me…of all the people who ever
knew about it, nobody ‘spilled it out’. I knew nothing about it,” George said.

“They wouldn’t let me go outside where they had all the preparations and everything. Then I heard someone say,

‘Where are they? When are they coming?’ I didn’t know who ‘they’ were and what ‘they’ were doing. Then I saw the police; when they came down, they turned their sirens on and flashing lights.”

George was born in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh, Pa. and was baptized, made his First Holy Communion and married his wife of 70 years, Patricia, at St. John Chrysostom.

He began cantoring at the church when he was no more than 10 years old.

“I used to cantor with Peter Korpos…he always encouraged me to sing and they had a big cantoring desk that would seat three or four people and he had all the books.

“Everything we sang, of course, was in Old Slavonic. I sang and knew all the melodies and all the words but, unfortunately, didn’t understand it.”

George thinks Peter may have first heard him sing during an after-school religious education class conducted by the priest or cantors.

He admits he had to be coerced — at least a little bit — to begin cantoring on a regular basis.

“Peter used to bribe me. He started out giving me a quarter. We lived so close to the church and my mother went to the Vespers service on Saturday night and the Matins service on Sunday morning. I used to go to the Vespers service with her and that’s when the cantor kind of approached me and encouraged me to come and sing with him.”

George enjoyed it from the start.

“I fit right in. I liked it. As a matter of fact, I remember when the services were all in Old Slavonic, (Peter) would give me the Epistle reading. The Thursday before Easter, I would read it in Old Slavonic three years in a row when I was 7, 8,9 or 8, 9, 10.

“I remember having to practice it at home before I could recite all the words carefully. I used to chant it. Plus, I was an altar boy.

“I thought I had an adequate voice to do the cantoring well.”

George continued to attend St. John Chrysostom until he received word a mission church was being formed in Bethel Park, Pa. at the Knights of Columbus Hall.

St. Gregory later began to be built — starting with the basement — at its current location in Upper St. Clair, Pa.

“One day I come to go to (liturgy) and (Father David Witkowski) says, ‘You’re the cantor now.’ It was a surprise to me. I didn’t think I had the wherewithal to be a cantor. I could sing as a parishioner, I had no problem with that…he tapped me to be the cantor and that’s when it started.”

Forty-five years later, his voice is still going strong.

“I probably enjoy it more now than ever. And I feel very confident. I still feel like I have the voice, a good voice. I’ve heard many compliments; people compliment me on my voice.

“I still don’t consider myself a great singer. But I think my voice is adequate for cantoring. I had no musical background except primary education in grade school. I never learned to play music, I never had a musical instrument. It’s just something that developed over the years and in later life.”

Feeling he still has a strong enough voice, George has no plans to retire.

“I’m probably going to do it as long as I can.

“I’m not setting a date to say, ‘Well, this is when I’m going to quit’.”