By Lindsay Steele
Recently, I wrote an article about young adults in the diocese with a passion for the organ. I happen to be one of them.
I’ve always enjoyed the organ sound, probably because it hearkens to an older time. As a child, I dreamed of having a time machine that would allow me to step back into the past. In a way, old pipe organs are like time capsules.
The organ at my parish, St. Mary’s in Davenport, was built in 1883. It still has slots on the side of the cabinet from the days when altar boys manually pumped the bellows. Generations of organists have sat on the wooden bench, pressed their fingers to the keys, and listened to the slightly sharp notes coming from the pipes above.
Our regular organist, Tony Fuhs, explained to me about a year ago that he was concerned for the future of the organ and hoped to get young people in the church interested in playing. Technically, it’s a remarkably resilient instrument, but our two organists are over the age of 55. I wondered, “Why not me?”
But I also thought of plenty of reasons not to try. While I took a few years of piano lessons in childhood, it was never really “my instrument.” I have small hands and have a hard time reading two staffs. Flute and piccolo were perfect for me. Keyboards? Not so much.
Still, I didn’t want to see this organ fall silent into the next generation. I realized that while I didn’t have the skill to play music as written, I could play chords with the left hand and the melody on the right. I could transpose songs in difficult keys. Deacon George Strader and his wife, Terry, were nice enough to give me their old spinet organ to use at home.
While there wasn’t an immediate need for me at the parish, I prepared myself for the parish’s future needs. I started playing the opening and closing hymns during Wednesday morning Mass at the St. Vincent Center, home of the Diocese of Davenport. I play the electronic keyboard there, but at least I gain some valuable accompanying experience and have an excuse to practice.
About two months ago, St. Mary-Davenport’s music director, Becky Pracht, told me that the time had come for me to start playing Masses; our substitute organist had sustained a hand injury and likely wouldn’t be able to return to her post. I went straight to work learning a Mass setting and four hymns.
Saturday, March 7, was the big day. I was terribly nervous as I sat before the keys. Tony was beside me, to help with cues. My mistakes were minimal and I was satisfied with my performance. After the Mass, the small but loyal congregation applauded my efforts. I couldn’t help but smile. “You did very well,” Tony said encouragingly.
After the service, Father Ed O’Melia, our pastor, came up to me and shook my hand. “You’re hired!” he said. “It doesn’t pay much though,” he quipped with a twinkle in his eye. Tony, Becky and I knew exactly what he meant — musicians at our parish appear on a strictly volunteer basis.
Accompanying the Mass on the organ was one of the most nerve-wrecking things I’ve done in recent memory, and an endeavor that took a lot of time and preparation. But it felt good to be able to serve my parish by playing an instrument I’ve always loved. I definitely hope to play again soon.
(Editor’s note: Lindsay Steele is a reporter for The Catholic Messenger. Contact her at steele@davenport diocese.org or by phone at (563) 888-4248.)