Noted anniversary for talented parish organist

By Wendy Shaw

Easter Sunday will be a noted anniversary for the much-loved organist at Ulverstone’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

It will mark 70 years since Colleen Stingel started playing music at Mass.

This impressive achievement began almost by chance.

Colleen was 14 when she was asked to step in at short notice after her music teacher and church organist, Josephine Littlejohn, fell ill with the flu.

“I didn’t step in, I was thrown in at the deep end,” Colleen recalled with a laugh.

Josephine had been Colleen’s music teacher for six years at that stage, and a few months earlier the weekly lessons had been moved to the church.

“We had the most beautiful organ – a pedal organ – at the [old] church in those days. It was the closest thing to a pipe organ and it had a beautiful sound.

“Jo told me the stops to pull out and that you had to connect the notes. ‘It’s up to you to practise,’ she said.”

A few months later, Colleen was told on Good Friday in 1954 that she would be required to play at Mass on Easter Sunday as Josephine was ill.

“It was the Easter before I turned 15,” she recalled.

“The first pieces I played were probably ‘Jesus’ Heart All Burning’ and ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven’. It was Latin Mass at that time.

“But mostly, I can still remember how nervous I was.

“So playing the organ was just something that happened. Fr Dean Cullen was Parish Priest when I started and then Fr Joseph (Joe) Howe helped me a lot. He was so musical. His brother was organist at the Cathedral in Hobart.”

At 16 Colleen was working as a clerk at a nearby bank and played at her first wedding during her lunch break. Over the years, she has also played at other Mass centres in the parish, at Ulverstone’s Sacred Heart Catholic School and at countless weddings and funerals.

Colleen was also quick to point out that she hasn’t played the organ continuously over those 70 years.

The mother of six has taken breaks, following the birth of her twins, while caring for her mother and after Colleen suffered an aneurism in 2009. Other people to have played at Sacred Heart Church over the years include Jane Bloomfield and Christine Delaney.

The move from the pedal organ to the first electronic organ was a daunting prospect for Colleen.

“Fr Joe decided it was time to change to an electronic organ. I said, ‘You will have to get a new organist.’  No more was said. And then he rang up one day and asked, ‘Will you be home tomorrow? The new organ is being delivered to your place so you can practise before it is put in the church.’ And it was delivered here, but the pedal organ was still at the church for a while afterwards because I played that at two of my daughters’ weddings.”

She also ruefully recalled playing on while her children were sitting on the steps to the altar when they were misbehaving at Mass and another occasion more recently when the organ had a major malfunction.

“I couldn’t get any sound out of it, and it blew up.

“It was at a confirmation day and the Archbishop was here. It was embarrassing.”

These days, Colleen and the church choir feature at Sunday Mass on alternate weeks with husband and wife duo Robert (guitar) and Debbie Rimmelzwaan.

“We still have the choir going that Fr Joe Howe started 50 years ago. Ed Reilly conducts the choir and takes practise and it is a beautiful choir. On the other week, Robert and Debbie are very musical and have lovely singing voices.”

Colleen, a lively, warm and welcoming part of the Mersey-Leven Parish family, modestly says that she is not a very good musician but she has been pleased to use what talents she has supporting the Church’s music ministry.

“Our mum and dad brought up my sister and I to believe that if you had a talent you should share it,” Colleen added.

Tags: Mersey-Leven, News