When the organ at St. John the Baptist Church in Engelberg began to malfunction and their longtime organist announced her retirement, parishioners began to worry about the parish’s music ministry.
But God provided for the church in more ways than anyone could have expected.
The parish’s organist, Millie Thielemier, 92, who has been playing for 60 years, returned in 2019 to help after taking a decade-long break. After a while, parishioners noticed issues with the organ.
“At one point, Millie was in the middle of playing the Gloria when the organ dropped down a scale before scaling back up,” said choir director Maria Taylor. “It just went crazy and went back up to the other key in the middle of her playing and messed everything up. You couldn’t predict when it would do that. Millie is a perfectionist, and we didn’t want to stress her.”
Parishioners began to worry about the cost of a new organ, placing an unexpected financial burden on the church. Then a parishioner came forward with the name of a local jack-of-all-trades: Seth Smithee.
“He does plumbing and heating and air conditioning, and for some reason, he was very involved in organs,” parishioner and volunteer Jane Smith said. “We got in contact with him, and lo and behold, he had an organ.”
Smithee, from Paragould, comes from a family of organists. He began to get involved in music as a youth when his organist at St. Mary Church in Paragould asked him to help with music at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Pocahontas. When Smithee replaced the organ at his parish with a new organ, he donated the old one to another parish, acquiring yet another organ and fixing it too. Smithee began to wonder what to do with the repaired organ — and that’s when he got a call from the Engelberg mission.
“I had all of the equipment to transport and get everything hooked up,” Smithee said. “I enjoy helping churches — that’s how I give back to the Church.”
Smithee installed the organ for free at St. John the Baptist Church, but the Engelberg church wasn’t out of the woods yet.
Thielemier, who had resumed playing on the new organ, began having eye issues, making it harder for her to play with each passing week. When Thielemier retired in January, the parish contacted Smithee again.
“We contacted Seth to see if he would maybe play once a month,” Smith said. “He came out here to play and fell in love with our church. … Now he drives from Paragould every Sunday, plus on practice days. … He’s our organist and he refused pay, but we give him money for gas,” since Smithee lives nearly an hour away.
As Smithee began to practice, he encouraged other members of the choir to confidently try new things. As a result, the choir’s size remained constant in spite of challenges.
“Our choir members are mostly older people,” Taylor said. “Over time, some members could no longer make it up the stairs, and our choir was dwindling. But the Lord has sent us new members. One person was even a completely new member of the parish.”
Children and grandchildren of choir members started joining their relatives in singing, bringing the choir’s total to around 12.
Choir member Jonathan Wren, 30, said Smithee helped him grow in his own musical abilities.
“I have been in the choir for 18 years … I have been the male lead of the choir, and that’s really hard,” Wren said. “When (Smithee) came along, I had someone to sing with, and it has helped me improve.”
Wren said Smithee also encouraged the choir to take initiative.
“Seth is so good with us,” Wren said. “He’ll say ‘Well, if that’s the way you do it, then do it that way.’ We’ve had some organists in the past who wanted to play it the way that it’s written. That’s difficult for us, because we’re just a good old country choir. We like to jokingly say that we’ve always done things the Engelberg way.”
The choir got a chance to flex their new music muscles during the five-year anniversary of pastor Father Stephen Elser’s ordination June 2.
“The choir asked me which songs I had at my first Mass, because they’d like to do those specific songs,” Father Elser said. “I had all the music and gave it to Seth, and I told him that I know it’s difficult. (This music during the ordination was performed) at Christ the King in Little Rock, which has a very robust music program. … I told them, ‘Just do whatever you can,’ and they did a fabulous job. I think it gave them more confidence to venture into more complex pieces. … I was very grateful and pleased with how they did.”
With newfound confidence, the choir is planning musical programs for Advent and Christmas.
For Smithee, playing the organ is an opportunity to improve on his family’s tradition.
“I kind of dropped the ball,” he said.”I wasn’t very good when I started, but when Engelberg needed some help, that motivated me to pick it back up and start practicing a lot more.”
For the parishioners of St. John the Baptist Church, it was an answered prayer.
“We do well financially, but a new organ would have been a major struggle for us,” Smith said. “And a new organist? Even in big cities, those are hard to come by. In our small community, an organist is just not there. … But God has come up with somebody to play our organ for us.”
Father Elser said he is thankful for God’s care of St. John the Baptist Church.
“Music directors and youth directors are few and far between in the church world,” Father Elser said. “I was preparing for the reality that we may not find somebody right off the bat or maybe ever. … But things just fell into place so providentially. We can definitely see the hand of God present in our parish community. We put our trust in him, and he provided for us.”
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