Norma Lee Riggs is 88 and plays the organ at Marion Christian Church two Sundays a month, sometimes three. Riggs, who is unable to use all her fingers when she plays, hopes another, younger organist takes over for her. However, like other organists in the community, she has been waiting for a replacement but none has come.
“If we could find someone, that would be great,” Riggs said. “But that’s the problem. Being 88-years-old, I’m not going to be able to do it much longer. I love to play, though.”
Organists have been in short supply for years across the country. Students play sports and participate in multiple activities, leaving little time to learn a musical instrument.
Donna Hayen, 73, who has been playing the organ at the Christian Church for 33 years, splits Sunday organist duties with Riggs.
Like Riggs, Hayen enjoys playing and is devoted to her church, but she prefers to retire.
“I’m just here because they don’t have anyone else,” Hayen said. “I would just like to go to church and not have something I have to do.”
The organist shortage is affecting other churches, too.
At Eastmoor United Methodist Church, Anita Brookens gets a break by recording her musical pieces through an electronic device on the organ that replays the songs another Sunday.
“I am very happy to share the organ bench with those given the gift and interest,” said Brookens, 62. “I have no intent in the near future of stopping, but at some point, obviously… I won’t be sitting on the bench when I am 105, and probably well before that.”
Brookens also catches a break when her husband Bob or Linda Walter, a former organist in Nebraska, fills in.
“It would be wonderful if we had someone who wanted to play organ,” said Wanda Williams, the organist at Aulne United Methodist Church. “It’s just a little hard to find an organist.”
Most organists made the transition from piano to the organ, which means learning multiple manuals, or keyboards, and the foot pedals that produce additional notes.
“It is becoming a lost art in our area,” Brookens said.
The low paycheck, or no paycheck, turns off potential organists. In addition, contemporary music in churches and a lack of time and interest among young people contribute, organists say.
“Most people don’t have an organ in their home so they have to go to church to practice, and that’s hard for families to schedule,” Williams said.
Anita Hancock, a longtime voice and piano teacher, plays the organ at Our Savior Lutheran Church and occasionally at Emmanuel Baptist Church, where Katherine Hett used to play. Hett died in 2000. She played the magnificent organ at Emmanuel Baptist for about 50 years, said Hett’s daughter Janet Plank.
“It was difficult when my family took a vacation,” Plank said. “It was like, ‘Oh, no. Mom has to try and find someone to fill in.’ And that was years ago.”
Like many churches, Emmanuel Baptist does not rely solely on the organ for music. Pastor Josh Wesner said that most Sundays a worship team of musicians makes music with song, a guitar and keyboard.
“I think that church music in general seems to be changing, and the organist situation is just a part of that—(it’s) not totally a personnel issue,” said Laura Williams, who plays at the Marion Presbyterian Church.
Williams, who has played for 35 years, said it’s an honor to play at funerals and weddings, but it’s also a lot of work preparing the personalized songs at the request of the family.
“It’s not just a job to play organ,” Laura Williams said. “You have to want to be a part of the service and you have to get something out of it internally to be involved.”
Williams suspects that organ music is not as essential anymore. She cited as an example the Pathway Christian Church in Wichita, which used to be the Westlink Christian Church. When the church moved to its new location about ten years ago, the organ was eliminated.
Sometimes a vacancy encourages someone to step up. About 15 years ago, St. Mark Catholic Church did not have an organist for the summer, so Rose Davidson, who works as the parish secretary, began playing. About a year and a half ago, Davidson underwent rotator cuff surgery, prompting Heather Vinduska to fill in and remain a half-time organist at the church. Davidson noted that the St. Patrick Catholic Church in Florence is without an organist, as are other smaller churches in the county.
Although Tabor College has a strong music program, the school has not employed a full-time organ teacher since the 1970s, said Brad Vogel, chairman of the Tabor music department.
At Valley United Methodist Church, Lenore Wheeler Dieter is learning to play the organ and has recently performed in front of the congregation. Dieter switches off Sundays with a couple of piano players who belong to the church.
What the Sunday organists have in common is a passion for their music.
Riggs, who loves to play the hymns on the organ and does not have full use of her right arm since she contracted polio at 4, plans to keep on playing.
“Playing the organ is a gift from God,” Riggs said. “And I want to use that gift to praise His name and to help my church.”