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Church organists encourage young musicians to take up the ‘king of instruments’

DETROIT, Mich. (The Michigan Catholic) - When Catholics file into churches for Mass on Sunday mornings, the first minister to invite them into prayer does so usually before the priest says a word to the congregation.

PIPES OF PRAISE - Peter Jarzembowski, music minister at St. Patrick Parish in White Lake, stands in front of the pipes at the church. Jarzembowski has spent 30 years in the music ministry and says he can’t imagine church services without the “king of instruments.” (The Michigan Catholic/Joe Kohn)

PIPES OF PRAISE - Peter Jarzembowski, music minister at St. Patrick Parish in White Lake, stands in front of the pipes at the church. Jarzembowski has spent 30 years in the music ministry and says he can’t imagine church services without the “king of instruments.” (The Michigan Catholic/Joe Kohn)


And, throughout much of Church history, that invitation has come with the aid of a keyboard, pipes and enough sound to fill the entire building.

Its result is the entrance hymn, a song to the Lord.

“Just like the ministry of the presider, the ministry of the organist is one that enables the prayer of the whole assembly,” says Fr. Marc Gawronski, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Monroe and also a clergy member of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. “There’s a real parallel there between the priest ministry and the organ ministry.”

The world over, the ministry of the organist is one that illustrates great diversity in the Church. It blends music from different cultures and eras. It grows with new technology. It’s discussed by the pope and the bishops, as well as the music minister in a small suburban parish in your own backyard.

As times change, and electronic sound systems replace the majestic pipes both in the Archdiocese of Detroit and elsewhere, local church organists — though smaller in number than in years past — see their ministry as a pillar of the Church. And they put forth great efforts to keep it that way.

‘King of Instruments’

While still in grade school, Heather Nofar, a member of St. Thomas (Chaldean) Parish in West Bloomfield Township, was taking piano lessons when she received a not-subtle nudge from her piano teacher, Maria DiCiccio. DiCiccio told her that a pianist isn’t overly difficult to come by — but organists are increasingly rare.

“She’s the biggest influence in my life in music,” says Nofar, now 27 years old and the music minister at St. Edith Parish in Livonia.

Such is the way many music ministers first made their way to an organ bench. It was true decades ago, and is also true today. Most learn at an early age, usually at the urging of a musically inclined parent, or a music instructor.

Once a musician is at a church organ, it’s not hard for them to fall in love with the instrument that has been at the heart of the Church for centuries, many say.

“The organ is the king of instruments,” says Nofar. “The sound dominates the whole church. The sound carries throughout. It includes all the different orchestral voices to make one big, beautiful blend in sound, and encourage singing and worship.”

Indeed, the moniker “king of instruments” has long been bestowed on the church organ. By the time Christopher Columbus came upon North America in 1492, organs resided in cathedrals and monastery churches throughout Europe.

Still today, few music ministers in the Archdiocese of Detroit aren’t well-versed at the organ — whether it’s a true pipe organ, or one of an increasingly capable fleet of electronic organs that mimic the sounds of a pipe organ.

When asked whether the church organist was a growing or shrinking commodity, many church organists in the Archdiocese of Detroit concede that the numbers — and some say the quality — of church organists has been on the down slope.

“The quantity is declining,” says Louis Cantor, associate director of worship for the archdiocese and also an accomplished church musician who currently plays at St. Charles Borromeo in Detroit. “I’m not quite sure why that is, especially with the electronic age. It’s much easier to sequence and use an electronic instrument… but it’s not an instrument that people are very drawn to.”

Still, Cantor says, the organ remains the official instrument of the Church. And those who play it are hard-pressed to imagine that changing. The fact that the organ can hold a note indefinitely, plus the great diversity it offers in sound — some being able to take on the sound of strings, trumpets, horns and other orchestral instruments — make it the ideal tool for leading a congregation, many church organists say.

“Being a trained organist and somebody who’s loved the organ and organ music for as far back as I can remember, I can’t see church service without it,” says Peter Jarzembowski, who for 30 years has been a music minister — the last 20 at St. Patrick Parish in White Lake.

Not just music, ministry

While the organ is the instrument of choice for many, if not most, Catholic music ministers, it’s important for the faithful to note that the person leading their congregation in song is not just a musician.

While a priest opens the congregation’s mind to the Gospel, and a lector shares the Scriptures, an organist has the responsibility of leading the congregation in musical praise.

“Ministry has to do with service,” Jarzembowski says. “There’s a service that an ordained minister might have to his people; there’s a service that lay ministers perform as well. For us, it happens to be a service in the praise of God through music. That’s what we do from week to week.”

Many music ministers have backgrounds in theology. All are required to be a part of the team that puts together liturgy at a parish.

Tom Rzomca, a 49-year veteran at the keyboard, had a mind to become a priest early in life. It was at Sacred Heart Seminary High School that a teacher, Fr. Kenneth McKennan, invited him to play the organ — which he’d learned in grade school — at his parish.

Rzomca realized then that his calling was to the music ministry. He says the ministry “leads us to God and respect for Christ’s mission on earth.”

As a minister, Rzomca says the goal during liturgy isn’t to perform the music of praise so much as it is to incite it.

“The musician in the church is the chameleon,” says Rzomca, who after playing at St. Malachy Parish in Sterling Heights for 23 years is in his first year at St. Mark Parish in Warren. “It’s up to the musician not to be noticed, but to have the people respond. The most important thing we can do is bring the music out of the people, to light the people up.”

The best hymns, he adds, are the ones that makes the congregation “bursts out at once” — it usually means familiar songs such as “On Eagles Wings,” “Amazing Grace,” and “Here I Am, Lord.”

But just as the Sunday Gospel readings aren’t picked out at random, neither is church music. It ties in with the theme of the Scriptures and with liturgical seasons. Some church organists even coordinate music based on the message a pastor gives in his homilies. For that reason, most church musicians sit on their parish worship commissions, and even spend significant time with the parish priests.

At St. Mary in Monroe, for example, Fr. Gawronski says he’s used to talking over a cup of coffee with his music minister, John Raymond.

“We’ll spend a couple hours there just thinking about and talking about music at our parish,” Fr. Gawronski says. “When we’re done, we leave with ideas we can implement. It really does enhance the ministry of our parish.”

Tomorrow’s organists

One of the big questions is whether there will be enough organists to sit down and plan liturgies with priests in the future. Some music ministers in the archdiocese seem to be concerned about the next crop of liturgical music candidates. Others aren’t.

Objectively, it’s hard to gauge the number of potential church organists. The number of students who study the organ at the University of Michigan and Wayne State University are smaller than they were 30 years ago. But many music ministers don’t come through colleges. Rather, they hone their skills with private lessons.

Bob Kose, who’s been a music minister for 35 years, feels the community of church organists is shrinking — evidenced by the fact that it’s harder now than in decades past to find a substitute musician.

“There’s a lot less,” says Kose, 57, who plays at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in River Rouge. “We’re in the same predicament as priests right now. That’s why I get called so often to go to churches other than my own.”

Kose says he followed in his mother’s footsteps to get into Church music, and learned it in a time when everything was sung in Latin. He hopes he doesn’t see a day when church music is played off a CD over a sound system.

And, as many Church musicians do, he’s trying not to let that happen.

“I try to encourage kids who are taking music lessons,” Kose says. “I say, ‘Somebody’s got to replace me.’“

Younger people are hearing that call. Take 30-year-old Johnny Kash, the music minister at SS. Peter and Paul (west side) Parish in Detroit. Being of the next generation, he says he has plenty of peers who also are entering the music ministry.

“From my viewpoint, I wouldn’t say there’s a real shortage,” Kash says. “I think the next batch, the next generation is ready and willing to take over.”

Kash gets a first-hand look at new talent. A scholarship coordinator for the American Guild of Organists, he helps the organization award scholarships to up-and-coming musicians anywhere from 10 to 17 years old.

When it comes to those who are going into church music, he says, the next generation has a diverse repertoire — thanks in large part to the diversity of the Church itself. At Kash’s own parish, he’s had to learn to lead the congregation in music in the Polish language, for example.

If most young organists had their choice, Kash says they’d lean toward the more traditional church hymns.

“In the history of things, things tend to swing one way for a while, then swing the next way,” Kash says. “With the teachings of Pope Benedict — he’s really promoting Gregorian Chant in the liturgy and Mass — and the comeback of the Tridentine Mass, I think things are swinging back to a more conservative position.”

Whatever the case, the fervor that those in the younger generation of the Archdiocese of Detroit’s organists exhibit for their faith and their instruments strikes a clear note of optimism.

“It’s up to us as organists, as musicians, to encourage the younger generation to pursue the organ,” says Nofar. “It’s a special calling.”


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