A Resident’s Perspective – Little Organ in Abilene: My True Story

Written by Panorama resident, Mary Jo Shaw. December 2015

Little did I know what I’d be getting into two days before Christmas in about 1963.

On answering the phone, I heard a quiet, slow, obviously elderly voice with a heavy hispanic accent, “Mary Jo, I am Angela from Our Lady of Guadalupe over far from where you live. Our very small church is one hundred years old on Christmas Day. We don’t have a choir. Most people don’t climb to the loft easy anymore. Six of us have been singing carols for weeks. Some, like Katrina and Elena warble. Well–me, too, sometimes. And when Clara sings high notes, she hardly makes it, but we’re excited and work hard.”

I listened and admired her efforts to express herself in English as she continued, “My great granddaughter, Linda, goes to piano lessons with you. She gave me your phone number last night when I told her we practice carols, even if we don’t have anybody to play for us. We’ll get to church very early on Christmas Eve to sit and rest in the loft before singing. We won’t be here many more years, and we want the old fashioned, holy Christmas, like many years ago. We helped each other climb up to the loft yesterday to look. The girls went back downstairs. I stayed up there to dust a little, and Mary Jo, I found an organ. It’s little, but it’s good. I tried it out! I played piano maybe seventy years ago. May we beg you to play the little organ for us? Please?”

“Oh, Angela, I play our Mass at Sacred Heart on Christmas Day,” I respond quickly with a sigh of relief.

Angela came back with a more excited, positive, quicker-paced response. “Gloria Dios! Oh, Mary Jo, that is w-o-n-d-e-r-f-u-l! We sing the Midnight Mass! We are ready to sing. You don’t practice with us. Just two days before Christmas. You know, we are too busy to practice more now. We bake pies, wrap hundreds tamales, make huge pots of refried beans and rice for a big after Mass. Then we shop, put up decorations. You know, very busy now.”

Listening to Angela’s joyful excitement and devotion in working to make the sacred celebration a success, I wondered whether I would be as committed at her age.

Angela continued. “We just finished practicing carols for the last time today. Now they’re all at church putting up the beautiful Christmas crèche with live trees and poinsettias in buckets and, at our ages, we just can’t move very fast as we used to, you know. Besides, we have to keep sitting down to rest. Big Bertha–her legs­–so swollen. We don’t know how she gets her tired feet into her slip-ons. She carries things across the wooden rough floors huffin’ and puffin’. She keeps dropping her cane, and someone picks it up for her. She laughs with us about it all. Everybody has a good time. It’s going to be such a blessed day. You on the organ and us girls singing out, I can’t wait to tell them the very good news.”

Getting over my selfish twenty-three-old self and feeling quite ashamed, “Oh, Angela, I’d be honored to play the carols for you.”

After asking needed information, I slowly, thoughtfully, hung up that receiver. Was there a floor under my feet? What on earth had I gotten myself into? I had just committed to play for some ladies who might collapse from heart failure. What would I do if one of them keeled over? Angela asked me to perform cold turkey, no rehearsal, no usual practice for hours. She just didn’t catch on that if I played her Midnight Mass, I’d be up all night. I couldn’t go home and sleep all day; I would have to play our early 9 o’clock morning Mass.

When the big night arrived, loving, unselfish, Diane, my elderly mentor, and I pulled out in the dark unknown.

I’ve seen old churches in my life, but this little relic earned the antiquity-appearance award. The ladies greeted us as if we were two of the three kings (or at least two of the shepherds). They hugged us and exchanged exclamations in Spanish to each other. Each step “ouched” as we climbed so delicately and wound around a tight twist all the way to the loft. How did those ladies manage this flight up here?

Where was the organ?

That? Older looking than the church, it had been thoughtfully positioned in front of the six rickety, matchless, wooden chairs. The organ stood proudly 30 inches tall and 24 inches wide, wearing the nicks and stains of time.

My thoughts froze, Oh, dear, only three and a half octaves. I’ll have enough keys for the right hand, but my left hand’s going to run out of keys. Lots of adjusting on the spot. Where are the pedals? Uhhh. It’s a pump organ? I remembered pictures of these from music history class. 

Proudly, enthusiastically, Angela announced, “Mary Jo, Bertha told me her papa played it at home for her mother and their thirteen children to sing. He gave it to the church. Here, Mary Jo, this is Bertha. She speaks very little English, but listens and understands.”

Bertha’s big smile and energetic shaking of her head let me know she understood what Angela was relaying. We got a quick introduction to the other lovely, tired but-pumped-up-with-adrenalin senior ladies. Their body language expressed their enthusiasm and thankfulness.

I had to move on with what to do with this little vintage before Mass started in 30 minutes!

A quick prayer put me at ease. Okay, Lord, this one’s on You and for You, in honor of Your birthday. Be with me, as You have so often when I place situations in Your hand. I sat on that stool and held a C-chord. I kept my toes pushing down, then my heels going down, toes, heels, toes, heels. I had to keep air going into the bellows. Time was ticking away. I played a few chord progressions to get the feel. I was focusing.

I plugged through Silent Night with jerky rhythm as I tried to coordinate hands in various rhythms against the constant even wave of my feet. Eventually, I got the feel. I could see the ladies smiling and nodding with approval and joy of an organ.

When Father was in the middle aisle ready to proceed to the altar, I began playing Away in a Manger. The choir chimed in. Also, on cue the church went pitch black. Parishioners had flaming candles which were to be the only light for a few minutes and to be blown out when the priest reached the crèche to place the Infant Jesus figurine in the manger.

I couldn’t see the organ, much less the music book. I stopped playing. The choir continued singing with no direction. They didn’t need direction. They just kept belting out joyously–heartily. The warbling was noticeable, and Clara’s not-quite-high-enough notes, were not quite high enough. But they were singing with what talent was left in them for God’s glory on His Son’s beautiful birthday.

“Luminares! Luminares!” Clara was yelling over the balcony.

When the lights came on, I continued with the choir, but not for long. My hands were still playing, but the reach was much farther away. My pumping feet were pushing the organ forward. The remedy? Play a few seconds, pull the organ back, play, pull, play, pull and repeat the entire evening. Mass continued for an hour and a half. Tears of joy from the ladies spoke louder than words.

I give thanks to the little unassuming pump organ when I was twenty-three. I had been given a challenge; and with God’s help and the example set by a parish of dedicated and gracious, elderly people, we made a joyful noise for the Lord!

Mary Jo Bio

2 thoughts on “A Resident’s Perspective – Little Organ in Abilene: My True Story

  1. This is a delightful story, and I can hear the strains of that pump organ, and of the dedicated choir members, from the way you’ve so aptly told it. Thank you, and I wish you a blessed Merry Christmas.

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