By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T
Over 68 years as a church organist Mary Babin has gotten to see a lot of people in the pews.
“I had the best seat in the house, and I met most people by the tops of their heads,” she said.
Now, after a 38-year run at Sacred Heart Church in Manoa, she has just officially retired, mostly because failing eyesight makes it difficult to read the music.
It all began when she was 11-year-old Mary Volkert at St. Louis School in Yeadon. Her grandmother had been a church organist, and Mary was a talented piano student of Immaculate Heart Sister Alfonsina, who suggested she try the organ.
She did so, and found it wasn’t a problem at all. Soon she was playing for school functions, weddings, funerals and other special services.
In 1951 she married her husband John, who died three years ago. He was legally blind, so money she began earning as a professional organist really helped the family budget. They were living in Newtown Square, but her first long-term engagement was at West Philadelphia’s Our Mother of Sorrows Church where she played for a decade.
She and John were also building a family – John, Kathleen (who died very young), Judith, Mary Therese, Joseph and Edward, and for a time she also ran a little clothing store in her spare hours.
Other churches where she played include St. Joseph in Collingdale and St. Eugene in Primos, at the latter playing mostly for weddings, funerals and sodalities. When she was hired by Sacred Heart in 1971, she told the pastor, “I usually stay at a church about 10 years.”
“You’ll be here longer than that,” he predicted. He was right; 39 years is a lot longer than a decade.
Catholic liturgical music was quite a bit different in her early days, Babin recalls. For one thing, there was very little congregational singing; most was done by the choirs, and most parishes didn’t even have hymnals – a limited repertoire of hymns was printed on stiff cardboard placards.
“It was all Latin Masses, there was no cantor at the altar,” she said. “Music has progressed so much with more congregational singing. Liturgy, properly done, is such an important part of the Mass.”
It is also time consuming. She remembers one year at St. Louis, between practice and liturgies, she was at the church 27 nights in March, mostly because of Holy Week and men’s parish missions.
Among her favorite older hymns are “Soul of My Savior,” “Panis Angelicus,” “Bring Flowers of the Fairest,” “Immaculate Mary, “Hail Holy Queen” and “Ave Maria,” which was always sung by a soloist.
That doesn’t mean she disdains newer music. Yes, she concedes, some of the hymns that came out immediately after Vatican II were not very good, but many others were excellent. Among newer hymns she loves are “Taste and See,” “On Eagles’ Wings,” and an older Protestant hymn more recent to Catholic liturgy, “How Great Thou Art.” Also there are black spirituals, which she finds quite beautiful.
Babin appreciates the fact that today the hymns are carefully chosen to match the reading of the week, and she believes Philadelphia has many wonderful organists. At Sacred Heart, she said, “the choir is outstanding.”
Over the years there has been fun and friendships and yes, memorable incidents. She recalls a time when, in the middle of “Ave Maria,” the soloist got his foot stuck in the railing and just kept on singing. Another time she was playing for a nuptial Mass and the poor bride fainted three times and left with the groom before Communion while the Mass went on.
“At the end I didn’t know what to do, so I just played the Wedding March anyway,” she said.
“In retirement, I’ll miss it,” she said, adding of all of the liturgies Holy Week is the hardest to give up.
“It’s my favorite week,” she said.
Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.