50 years on the organ bench
It's possible that if Barb Johnson weren't busy playing the organ on Saturday evenings, she could do pretty well as a comedienne. The 75-year-old Hermantown woman, marking her 50th anniversary as organist at St. Raphael's Church on Seville Road i...
It’s possible that if Barb Johnson weren’t busy playing the organ on Saturday evenings, she could do pretty well as a comedienne.
The 75-year-old Hermantown woman, marking her 50th anniversary as organist at St. Raphael’s Church on Seville Road in Hermantown, has that innate since of timing.
“I left for Milwaukee for three years, came back, got married and four months later started up here for two to three weeks as a volunteer,” she said, and then waited a beat. “Fifty years ago.”
Johnson, in a blue sweater vest decorated with snowflakes over a red blouse, chatted on Saturday in the narthex of the brick church with its priest, the Rev. Joe Sobolik; her husband, Darrold Johnson; and a couple of journalists.
The 25-year-old Johnson really did think it was a temporary gig back in 1964 when she agreed to fill in while the regular organist visited a sister in Alaska, she said. She had only recently transferred to the parish after marrying Darrold - who has lived in the same Jackson Projects home for 77½ of his 79 years - that June.
Her roots were in Duluth’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, where she first played organ for Mass at the old St. Jean-Baptiste Catholic Church - she calls it St. Jean’s - at age 13. Her mother, Beatrice Sliney, already was playing the organ there. Before that, Johnson’s grandmother played the organ at a Canadian church.
At St. Raphael’s, Johnson plays for Mass both on Saturday at 5 p.m. and on Sunday morning, as well as for weddings and funerals.
When she started playing at St. Raphael’s, the parish itself was only a couple of years old. She outlasted the parish’s first organ and enough priests so that she can’t remember the exact number of them off the top of her head. Each of the couple’s four children was born and has grown up during the time that she has played the St. Raphael’s organs. Two of the four were born early enough in the week so that Johnson was able to come home, leave the baby with her husband and not miss a single Mass, she said.
As the children got a little older, one might sit with her on the organ bench or in the choir loft. On at least one occasion, this turned out badly.
“My youngest once crawled out onto the altar (pause) … during a funeral,” Johnson said.
Sobolik, a 33-year-old with a relaxed demeanor, led the little group in laughing at the story.
“Yeah, that was pleasant,” Johnson went on. “(The priest) had to pick the baby up because otherwise he was going to keep crawling. He was game for it, and there was nothing I could do besides finish what I was playing.”
Sobolik, the parish priest for a year and a half, was glad to find an organist in place when he arrived, he said.
“It’s hard to find people willing to do the music,” Sobolik said. “It’s always important to have music at Mass.”
St. Raphael’s has a couple of people who can fill in as pianists if Johnson is away. “As far as organ, it’s pretty much Barb,” he said.
Happily, Johnson has no plans to retire.
“The thing is, I’d be at Mass anyhow,” she explained. “I’m always assured of a seat. I’m never standing in the back.”
So she won’t quit, Johnson said, “unless they decide I’m retired or if I drop dead - then I’m retired.”
But 50 years is a milestone worth noting. This being Minnesota, the parish is celebrating it with a potluck. It follows today’s 10:30 a.m. Mass.
It was pointed out to Johnson that she shouldn’t have to bring anything to the potluck.
“I shouldn’t have to,” she agreed, “but I am bringing a salad. It’s a big salad, and I don’t get to make it that often because the two of us would be eating it for two weeks.”