The first time Jane Cohill played the organ for Mass at St. Michael in Clear Spring, the 11-year-old girl spent countless hours practicing the one hymn she planned for her big debut – “Oh Come All Ye Faithful.”
Not only did she have to hit all the right keys, the budding organist had to pump air into the ancient instrument by rocking her feet back and forth as if using an old sewing machine.
Although she was nervous about making a mistake, Ms. Cohill survived her first liturgy without a musical slip-up. She went on to serve her parish as the main organist for the next 60 years.
Ms. Cohill retired from her post in May, stepping down to spend more time with her ill husband. In honor of her six decades of volunteer service, the parish presented her with a gold medal of St. Cecilia – patron saint of musicians.
“It’s been my way of worship,” said Ms. Cohill. “It was something I was born to do.”
Ms. Cohill became interested in playing for her church while taking private piano lessons with a School Sister of Notre Dame named Sister Mercedes who taught at St. Mary School in Hagerstown, the same school Ms. Cohill attended.
“When I told Sister I wanted to play hymns at church, she took me to the big organ at St. Mary’s and she taught me what to do,” remembered Ms. Cohill, who also worked with a small choir in later years at St. Michael.
Ms. Cohill said she has greatly enjoyed providing music at liturgies and has felt supported by the congregation. Although she likes some of the contemporary hymns that have been written in recent years, she said she has a fondness for traditional Catholic classics like ‘Oh Sacred Heart, Oh Love Divine,’ ‘Oh Lord I am not Worthy’ and time-honored Marian hymns.
“One problem we’ve had is that sometimes a new hymn can be so pretty, but no one knows how to sing it,” said Ms. Cohill, noting that one of her favorite contemporary hymns is ‘Here I Am, Lord.’ “We try to stick with hymns that people will sing.”
The first organ Ms. Cohill played was replaced in the late 1950s and another organ was added later.
Ms. Cohill plans to serve as a substitute organist when needed. After so many years at the keyboard, she is still getting used to sitting in the pews at Mass.
“I go into church and I feel my fingers want to play on the back of the pew in front of me,” she said with a laugh.