The Guzman Girls: What a Sister Act

You’ve heard of the ’60s girl-bands the Shirelles and the Supremes, but have you heard of The Guzman Girls? In 1964, a unique girl band burst onto the scene! While other girl bands wore sequined dresses and performed at the Copacabana, the Guzman Girls donned Religious habits and were big hits at church fundraisers and jubilee celebrations! The Guzman Girls – named after St. Dominic de Guzman – had a saintly line-up: They were all Amityville Dominican Sisters!

The band included Sister Jeanne Andre Brendel on saxophone and vocals, S. Carol Standerwick on drums, S. Sally Butler on piano, S. Barbara Nirrengarten on Melodica, former member Marie Martin on trumpet, S. Barbara Gerardi on trumpet, S. Dorothy Kane on bass saxophone, S. Miriam Cecile and former member Carol Rizotti on vocals. “It was such a joy, an absolute joy,” said S. Jeanne Andre. “And the sisters loved it.”

Jubilee celebrations used to be more solemn, but that shifted when sisters heard the sounds of the Guzman Girls! “We did change something,” said S. Jeanne Andre Brendel. “When the sisters first heard us, it was a happy surprise… They’d say, ‘Do you think the Guzman Girls could play for my Jubilee?’ And I would be so happy. I’m telling you this, I’m getting goosebumps just remembering that we could be a source of joy. We were happy to be able to do it.

”The “Guzzies” were also a hit at other events. They struck a chord at community and parish fundraisers. They also served as a side act at Community Orchestra shows. Occasionally, they would book bigger gigs like a priest fundraiser at Gargiulo’s in Coney Island or the basement of Lincoln Center for a group of social workers. When S. Mary Ryan was elected prioress, the band pinned music to their backs in the “brown auditorium” and played “Hail to the Chief.

”They seldom rehearsed, yet the band was great! It’s hard to believe that when S. Jeanne Andre joined the Sisters of St. Dominic, she didn’t even know how to play the saxophone. As a young sister living at the convent on Montrose Avenue, she noticed a silver saxophone in the closet that belonged to an elderly nun. Knowing that she – like many sisters – would be spending the summer upstate at St. Joseph’s working with children at the camp, she thought to herself, “‘If only I could get that saxophone, I could practice in Monticello when I go up there,” she recalled thinking. So, Sister Jeanne mustered enough courage to ask the older Religious. “‘Sister, would you give me that instrument?’” she recalled saying. “The sister said ‘no’ because she said I would only play jazz. So, I told her I would start with Tantum Ergo,” she remembered, laughing. S. Jeanne Andre got the saxophone and later learned the basics from Sister Kathleen Waters.

But how did the Guzman Girls start playing together? “It all started with a hootenanny,” recalled S. Carol Standerwick. One night, a group of sisters performed on the large lawn at t. Joseph’s for the workers. “We all just had fun,” said Sister Carol. “We weren’t organized then!” S. Jeanne Andre blew a saxophone, while S. Carol tapped the drums, while S. Beata Marie slapped a washtub bass and another sister grabbed a cheese grater!

The Guzman Girls were born. “It was a joyful time,” recalled S. Barbara Nirrengarten. Over the years, different people played with them including S. Jeanne’s father, Sylvester Brendel, who was a member of the prestigious band called the Clicquot Eskimo Club, and S. Barbara Nirrengarten’s father, Andrew Nirrengarten, who was in the band Zainys! As a young priest, Msgr. John Alesandro played saxophone with them at a celebration at St. Pancras. Another time, they were joined by a newscaster Joel Siegel who highlighted the band on TV.  S. Carol Standerwick still chuckles about how he ended his news segment that day by saying, “Guy Lombardo still has the best music this side of heaven.

”As the Sisters got busier with work and attending school at night, it was harder to get together to play. In the late ‘70s, the group disbanded, but the memories live on.

Sister Carol treasures that time of her life and all the laughs. She recalls that in the beginning, she didn’t even own a set of drums! S. Jeanne Andre collected green stamps from the community and then ordered S. Carol a bright red set of drums from the S&H catalog. Sister Carol still misses those drums, but treasures the joy for the group. “I loved the enjoyment that we gave to the audience. It was fun and we entertained a lot of people!”