By Cheryl Magness
On May 22, the congregation of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Britton, Mich., honored Eileen Jones for 70 years of service as Emmanuel’s organist. The Rev. David McCarty, pastor of Emmanuel, has worked with Jones for the last eight of those years.
“Eileen is the epitome of a faithful servant of the Lord,” McCarty said. “This was my first congregational call, and Eileen’s support and encouragement, along with that of so many others, has helped enormously.
“Eileen has always had the attitude, ‘To God be the glory.’ I have been greatly blessed by serving with this dear saint.”
The first time Jones played the organ for a Sunday morning service at Emmanuel was in 1949. She was 16 years old and had only studied piano, not organ, but the regular organist asked if she could fill in. “She [the regular organist] showed me a few things so I could do it,” said Jones. At the time, Emmanuel was in a different location, and its electronic organ had only one manual (keyboard) and no pedals except for one swell (volume) pedal.
When the church decided to get a new organ, Jones and her father traveled with the other organist and her father to Grinnell Brothers Music House in Toledo, Ohio, to look at possible replacements. The organ Emmanuel settled on — a Hammond — had a full pedalboard.
Because Jones did not know how to play pedals, she started taking lessons from a local teacher who met her every Sunday afternoon at church. During the week, Jones would ride her bicycle two-and-a-half miles from her house to practice at church. After she learned to drive, she was allowed to use the family car.
As her skills grew, Jones talked to other organists in the area to learn where to find music suitable for worship. She paid for the music out of her own pocket. At first, she was not compensated to play for church, but she later began receiving $1 per service. The rate increased over time.
Jones played Emmanuel’s Hammond organ for 35 years, both in Emmanuel’s previous location and in its present-day location on Ridge Road in Britton. Then, in 1985, she led a campaign to purchase a new Baldwin organ.
During her time as Emmanuel’s chief musician, Jones also organized campaigns to purchase handbells and chimes — and recruited and directed handbell, chime and vocal choirs. Through it all, she worked a full-time job, reared three children and served the church in a variety of ways.
Asked what advice she has for up-and-coming church musicians, she said it’s essential to practice. “I’ve always practiced, no matter what … the preludes, postludes, hymns, liturgy. The music had to be done well. I couldn’t handle it if it wasn’t.”
After the practicing is done, the musician must still expect the unexpected: “Once, at a wedding, I was told, ‘Keep playing, keep playing,’ because the bride’s mother hadn’t arrived. I had to play a half hour longer than I had planned.”
Sunday morning can also be unpredictable. “Sometimes the pastor skips something,” Jones said, “so you have to hurry and get to the right page. Then he might go back and do what he missed.”
Jones has served with 12 pastors in all. “They were all good to work with,” she said.
Jones has now retired from organ playing. But her daughter, Carolyn Reitz — a retired Lutheran day school teacher — plays two Sundays a month at Emmanuel. Reitz said she learned from watching her mother that playing for church is not a way to seek praise for yourself but “a way to serve.”
“She was tireless in her pursuit to offer her best to Jesus,” Reitz said. “She encouraged me in my own music. I can remember adults saying to me when I was a child, ‘Someday you’ll be taking your mom’s place as the organist.’ I would always reply, ‘Oh no, that’s not for me.’ And now here I am.
“My mother has left quite a legacy, and big shoes to fill. From her I learned what it means to live out Colossians 3:23: ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for men.’”
Jones said she is thankful God gave her the opportunity — and the ability — to serve the church through music. “It was really rewarding, and I loved it dearly.”
Posted Dec. 8, 2022