Marion Presbyterian Church will celebrate the season of advent with its annual vespers service, a traditional night service of song and scripture that dates back to the early 1960s.
This year’s service will be 5 p.m. Sunday at the church. Regular attendees know to show up about 15 minutes early to catch the prelude, pastor Jeremiah Lange said.
Most parishioners don’t know when vespers started, only that it has been and will continue to be each year.
“It doesn’t feel like the Christmas season has started until we’ve had the vespers service,” Debbi Darrow said. “It’s a special part of the season.”
Darrow is one of many church members who feels a wave of nostalgia when thinking of the vespers.
She remembers driving home from Manhattan with Brad Case, son of Rosse and Janice Case, in his Ford Falcon, piled in with blankets to make up for his lack of a working heater, to return for vespers service.
Darrow graduated in 1971 from Marion High School and remembers singing in the choir in her high school years.
“Back then, if you were a high school kid you were expected to participate in the choir, whether you could sing or not,” she said.
Bula Staub, a former minister’s wife, is credited with starting the vespers service. The tradition was continued by Marjory Nelsen, also a minister’s wife and a Juilliard graduate. Nelsen in the early ’80s began a new tradition — performing organ-and-piano duets with Laura Williams, who would eventually take over organist duties for the church.
Williams said working with Nelsen was a challenge.
“She put me through the paces,” Wiliams said. “For years, it was my joy to just play duets with her. And we’d do these almost 25-minute prelude pieces. It was very amazing.”
Soon after Williams became the church organist, in 1990, Mike Connell became the choir director. Connell and Williams have been the driving duo behind vespers ever since.
They have put forth effort to keep the program from going stale while still holding to tradition.
“A challenge to me is to make a new twist to it every year,” Williams said.
Connell helped innovate the program by inviting guest musicians he met over his years leading music at Marion schools.
“I was so very blessed with incredible musicians,” he said, citing multiple all-state band members. “When you’ve got three or four or five of them throughout the group, all of a sudden, their influence shows. They made me look very good.”
To that end, the service has become more of a community event, Williams said, by incorporating talents from outside the congregation.
This year, Jessica Fein will be lending her talents to the vespers service with her flute, playing for the 10th year, Williams said.
“To hear someone like Jessica say ‘This is my 10th year’ in kind of a hallowed voice, it meant something to her, and she’s gone to Strassburg Baptist for all her life,” Williams said.
Presbyterian members Doug Kjellin and his son Adam will be performing a vocal duet.
While Williams and Connell begin planning the service in October just before rehearsals start, it’s tough to get widespread commitment.
“You’ve got to fight with people’s schedules,” Williams said. “It’s only one time a year, and if they don’t mark it on their calendars, you may not get them. I don’t know everybody’s reasons, you just want to get as many people there as possible because you’ve worked to make it happen.”
For Connell, the program has become more special in recent years as he left behind other obligations that at one time made Christmas season very busy.
“At first it was just another added Christmas program,” he said.
Eventually though, the serene spirituality of the service grew on him, and as his other obligations subsided, he focused more effort into the service.
“This is what I have left, so it has become very, very special to me,” he said. “I have to be very careful that I don’t overwork or give too much heavy stuff to the choir because I know they can do it if I beat them to death. But it’s not a big concert. It’s a worship service.”
Connell’s sentiments were echoed by Darrow, Williams, and others within the church.
“It’s all about the birth of Jesus, but it’s also just an uplifting service, it’s not like a formal church service,” Williams said. “There’s a welcome and a benediction, and in between you have to just let it fill you up. You don’t have to stand up or partake. Just let it reach you however you want to.”