Jan Lee Buxengard has been a co-organist at Wilmington Lutheran Church in rural Spring Grove for 42 years. Prior to that she served as an organist at the First Presbyterian Church in Caledonia for 7 years.
Jan Lee Buxengard has been a co-organist at Wilmington Lutheran Church in rural Spring Grove for 42 years. Prior to that she served as an organist at the First Presbyterian Church in Caledonia for 7 years.
An organ playing in a church can evoke many a memory from happy, celebratory times of Christmas or a wedding to the more somber times of a funeral. Whatever the season, reason or time, the sound of organ music in a church is timeless.

Church organists are a special group of people whose ranks are slimming with not many new organists joining the group. Four local ladies shared their experiences as church organists, some for more than four decades.

Verly Holty of Mabel has been an organist at Calvary Evangelical Free Church for 56 years. Jan Lee Buxengard of rural Spring Grove has been an organist for 49 years, serving seven years at First Presbyterian Church in Caledonia and 42 years at Wilmington Lutheran Church. Lois Morken of Spring Grove has been an organist for 46 years at Faith Lutheran of Blackhammer and Barb Solum of Spring Grove was the organist at Riceford for 25 years until the church there closed in 2003.

A part of worship

Throughout their many Sundays of playing, they all agreed that they really enjoyed being a part of the church service.

"Music is a big part of what a church service is about," commented Solum. "All around the world, when people worship, there is music involved from drums and singing in Africa, to guitars, organs and other instruments here. Music has been a part of worship forever."

"I enjoy being a part of the church ministry," added Buxengard. "I feel like I was meant to do this."

All four of these ladies are quite talented, maybe more than they are comfortable to say. None of them had any formal organ training before becoming a church organist, yet they have enhanced their churches' worship services with their musical talents for many years.

"I took lessons and played the piano throughout high school and played at various things for school and church," explained Morken. "Then our church organist suddenly quit and they knew I played piano, so I was asked to play the organ. An organist from the community gave me a few lessons on how a piano was different from an organ, but the rest I learned on my own."

"I started piano lessons when I was in middle school and continued through high school," said Solum. "I started playing the organ at the Methodist church in Mabel in high school and through nurses training, but really had no intentions of being a church organist," she added with a smile.

"I taught myself to play," said Holty. "My sister also taught herself and we have played many organ/piano duets together at church."

"I began piano lessons at 11-1/2 years old and took lessons off and on throughout the years. When I was about 15-1/2, the pastor (at First Presbyterian Church) asked me if I would play for church services and I did!" explained Buxengard. "I played throughout high school and after high school I worked in Rochester and came home most weekends, so I continued to play there as needed."

As these ladies have played for many years, the amount of preparation has become less as they are familiar with many of the songs. About two to three hours a week is the amount of time most of them spend going over the songs, deciding on prelude music and practicing.

"After this many years, I kind of know how it works!" said Morken with a little laugh.

Service memories

The organists are all moms. Their children grew up as regular churchgoers and spent most of the services sitting with their dads.

"When I started playing the organ, my oldest child (of five) was 11 years old and my youngest was just a little over a year. My husband had a job during church," Morken said with a smile.

"My husband sat with our five kids and he also led the music sometimes, so that made it even more challenging," Holty added with a chuckle.

"My youngest of five was 5 years old when I started as organist; our kids grew up in church," Solum said with a grin. "Although, I did sometimes miss sitting in the pew with them during church."

"I was happy to have my in-laws at church because when Gary had a drill weekend for the Navy Reserves, my four kids would sit with them," said Buxengard.

The organists shared many special memories including the joyful music that accompanies the Christmas season especially when the church is decked out in holiday décor, or the special services for the church's anniversary, or playing a favorite song like "What a Friend We have in Jesus," "Great is Thy Faithfulness" or "Ode to Joy."

Solum recalled during her time at Riceford that, in the winter, they often had "house church" where they would meet at members' homes so that they didn't have to heat up the church building.

"We were lucky that three members had organs in their homes, so I was able to continue to play music during 'house church' and that was really nice," she added.

"I remember playing for church on a Sunday in July of 1976 and the very next day our son, Allen, was born," reminisced Buxengard. "He was premature so had to stay in the hospital for about 15 days. I played the organ the Sunday after he was born and someone remarked they didn't even know that I was pregnant! That made me chuckle."

Continuing a tradition

Solum's church organist career concluded when Riceford closed. She still substitutes here and there. The other ladies continue their service as organists with none of them planning to stop any time soon.

It is a concern to them as to who will fill their organ benches once they do retire as not many young people seem to be interested in being a church organist.

"When the time comes, I hope that we will be able to find someone in the congregation that would be willing to be the organist," expressed Morken. "Music is an important part of the worship service and I don't want to see it end. I wish there was a way to encourage younger ones to be an organist."

"An organist needs to be someone who loves music and is serious about music to take up a job as an organist," added Solum. "Music really is an important part of the church service."

"I think playing the organ maybe scares people a little," suggested Buxengard. "I think many of us came from a piano background and we learned to adapt. The youth of today are involved in so many things that I'm not sure what the future of church organists are. I think if we offer words of encouragement to those that have musical training and encourage them to continue with their training and to play in public that maybe they'll be more likely to consider it."

Being a church organist has been and continues to be a big part of their lives.

"It has been an enjoyable experience," remarked Morken. "The people have treated me well!"

"I have been lucky to have a co-organist at church, Dorene Myhre. We've had such a good working relationship. I really appreciate that and especially her friendship that has grown with it," added Buxengard.

"Even though I don't formally play for a church, I still enjoy playing at the nursing home in Spring Grove once a month and subbing here and there," said Solum.

"Times may be changing and different instruments are being used during worship, but people are making use of the talents they have and for me, playing the organ is something that I can do for the Lord," Holty concluded.