As a young girl growing up in coal country in Lansford, Pa., Catherine A. Mitchell loved to play the piano. She was trained by the nuns at her Catholic high school and would go to nearby St Ann's Catholic Church to practice because she had no piano at home.
Her dedication to and love for making music flourished, and over a 30-year period she used her skills at Fort Belvoir, where she volunteered to play the organ for Roman Catholic Masses and in 1982 became the pianist and organist for the new Spanish language Masses there.
Mitchell did not speak Spanish, but she did not let that stop her from learning the vibrant songs sung by the choir. "She wasn't fluent, but she knew what the words meant," said her son John Pasierb of Springfield. "She used to take my Spanish books to look up words."
When she started, she did not have a lot of sheet music, her son said, but she transposed the music she had by hand. Sometimes members of the choir would come to rehearsals with their guitars and play the songs they knew. "She would record them and then sit in the basement and write out the music," Pasierb said.
Milagros Rivera was one of the first members to join the choir when the Sunday morning Spanish Masses began at Fort Belvoir. She and her two children and another mother and her two children made up the choir then, she said. Mitchell did not mind. "She was very happy," Rivera said. "She helped us a lot."
She said Mitchell learned a little Spanish and learned to play the music. "She's got the rhythm. The Latin rhythm," she said of the woman who became a part of her family, the woman who was known for her beautiful smile.
The size of the choir fluctuated with the coming and goings of military families. Instruments were added, including maracas and guitars. Over the years, Mitchell's arthritis would cause her problems. She developed adult arthritis when she was 30 and had total joint replacement in her hands. But Mitchell, 73, continued to play her four to 10 songs a service, every Sunday that she was there, until she died April 12 of a heart attack after neck surgery at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
Usually about 100 people attend the 9:30 a.m. Spanish-language Mass at Fort Belvoir, the only early Spanish Mass in the Dioceses of Arlington, said the Rev. Jesus Navarrete, the Army chaplain in charge of the service. Mitchell was very involved in the services, as well as in the community of parishioners. "She was a good bridge," he said. "Spanish or English, she just wanted to serve." Those attending the Masses were active-duty military members and their families, and retirees, about 80 percent of whom were of Puerto Rican descent and the others mostly Peruvian, Salvadoran and Mexican.
Mitchell had a special way of talking to people -- not so much what she said but how she said it, said Andrea Ruiz, who came to view Mitchell as a second mother. She liked having fun during rehearsals and would always encourage the group in its singing. Her enjoyment, people said, often shone on her face.
Ruiz and Navarrete said Mitchell was a big Redskins fan. On more than one occasion, she brought a small television and secreted it under the organ during Sunday Mass. "You could tell by looking at her face if they were winning," Navarrete said.
Mitchell came to Washington in the 1950s to work in an electronics plant, soldering motherboards for missile components. While attending classes at George Washington University, she met Eugene J. Pasierb, a law student, on the tennis court. He graduated from law school, and they married and lived in Maryland and the District before moving into a new home in Springfield in 1961.
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Mitchell devoted herself to raising her two sons, John and Eugene. Her husband, a lawyer with the Agriculture Department, died in 1973. She later married Joseph Mitchell, a retired machinist at the Navy Yard.
By the early 1970s, she became a volunteer pianist for the Army at Fort Belvoir, providing musical accompaniment for services that brought together members of the transient military community. Later, she became an independent contractor, earning $25 a service.
"She was a volunteer pianist long before we had money to pay her, " said Elizabeth Troutman, Catholic coordinator for Fort Belvoir. She also served with the hospitality committee and greeted new families. "She was kind of like a grandmother for all the Hispanic children. In a military community, children are usually without their grandparents," she said, and Mitchell was always "sweet and welcoming" to the children.
About two years ago, Ruiz decided to do something special for Mitchell. She and her husband gave Mitchell and her husband close-to-the field tickets to a Redskins game. "For the first time, she went to a real game," Ruiz said. "The next day, she was jumping around," still excited by the gift.
Catherine Mitchell, known by those at Fort Belvoir as Kay, played at her last Spanish Mass in February.