I was born and raised Catholic, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with this.
I started taking organ lessons at the age of five. This was mostly because we had an old electronic organ in the house instead of a piano. My mom found a nice organ teacher, and it just went from there.
I was 16 years old when the organist at my church just up and quit. A few parishioners knew that I played the organ, so it was suggested that I take over the position. I was nervous about it, but I agreed. When you’re 16 years old, $30 for about 45 minutes of work seems like a pretty good deal. I signed on to do the 4:30 p.m. Mass on Saturdays and the 10:30 am Mass on Sundays. (There was no way I was going to wake up for the 8 a.m. Mass every week. So an older lady from the Organists Guild took that one. …Yes. There is an American Guild of Organists.)
The choir was always very nice to me. They knew I was new, so they did everything they could to help me. They were all anywhere between 65 and 85 years old at the time, so they kind of took me under their wing. Where I’m from, many of the parishes have ethnic affiliations. St. Mary’s was started by Lithuanian immigrants in the early 1900s. So many of the traditional songs sung at Christmas and Easter were in Lithuanian.
I do not know Lithuanian.
They helped me through phonetically with the Lithuanian words, and everything always worked out well. (Did you know that Silent Night in Lithuanian is “Tyli Naktis?”)
As I got more comfortable with the job, I began changing a few things around. I may not have been an octogenarian, but I knew a thing or two about music. The old organist had taught them a few things incorrectly (I can’t tell you how many times I had to re-teach them something). They didn’t like it when I told them they were wrong. Something about taking direction from a teenager didn’t sit well with them. They probably wished that I stayed a naïve 16-year-old.
But I grew up and I loved the job—I took it very seriously. It was something that made me special. I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with the Catholic Church, but that didn’t change how I felt about the music. For me, Mass has always been about the spiritual experience with the music.
I was the organist for eight years, and I wouldn’t change a minute of it. As much as they didn’t like taking direction from me, I could tell that my choir really loved me. They always chipped in and gave me a nice gift at Christmas. One of the older men called me “Miss America” because he thought I was pretty. I always had a great respect for those people and how much they did for the Church.
My Diocese when through some major changes about three years ago. They were consolidating parishes and closing others. St. Mary’s closed on the Feast of Christ the King in 2009. (That’s the Sunday before Advent, for those keeping score.) I didn’t realize how much I loved being an organist until it was taken away from me. I cried a lot, I grieved a lot, and I was angry for a while.
I’m not a church organist anymore, but I still go to Mass every week. My connection with God doesn’t happen through the Gospel or through sermons—I feel God in the music.