June 25 was a bittersweet day for Joan Doeblin.
That was the day she played the organ for the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva’s weekly 7:30 a.m. Sunday Mass for the last time, and later that day the community held a reception to thank her for 42 years of service as an organist.
Doeblin said she came to be an organist in a roundabout way, and didn’t learn to play the instrument until she was an adult.
“I could play the piano from when I was 7 years old, but the organ always intrigued me,” she recalled.
In the early 1960s, she became friends with the organist at St. Stephen Parish’s organist, Henry Sidorowicz, because her husband sang in the choir. Sidorowicz taught Doeblin some of the basics of playing the organ, and he coached her as she learned several hymns.
When Sidorowicz left his post in mid-August 1964, St. Stephen’s pastor at the time, Father Raymond Patrick Nolan, asked Doeblin if she would play the organ during funerals at the parish. She agreed, but her grandfather died two days before she was supposed to start playing at funerals. Doeblin didn’t think she could handle playing for the first time at the funeral of a loved one, so she said she called Sidorowicz “in a flurry.” The former organist was happy to help her out, she noted.
“So he played that one, and I jumped in with two feet after that. It was either sink or swim,” Doeblin said.
Not only did Doeblin stay afloat, but soon she’d graduated from playing only at funerals to playing at three of the four weekend Masses at St. Stephen. Shortly after Sidorowicz left, Father Nolan hired the organist from a local Presbyterian church to give Doeblin a few lessons, and soon she was off and running.
“Once a week for one month she came down to St. Stephen’s Church and helped me, and (Father Nolan) paid for the lessons and I made $50 a month,” Doeblin said.
Doeblin continued to play for funerals and eventually began playing for weddings and a weekly novena. There were times when she spent so much time at the church that the parish staff asked her why she didn’t just set up a cot near the organ and stay overnight, she recalled with a laugh.
Doeblin, a mother of six, said there’s no way she would have been able to keep such a busy schedule without the help and support of her husband and mother, who often cared for the children while she was at the church.
Doeblin also taught in Geneva’s Catholic schools for more than four decades. She began teaching at St. Francis de Sales School in 1954, switched over to St. Stephen’s School the next year, and stayed with the schools when they combined to form St. Francis-St. Stephen School more than 20 years ago.
After retiring from her school position in 1997, Doeblin began playing at funerals held at neighboring St. Francis de Sales Parish, which along with St. Stephen makes up the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva. At times, she even traveled to St. Patrick Parish in Seneca Falls and St. Mary Parish in Waterloo because those parishes sometimes had a hard time finding organists for their funerals, she said.
Doeblin has 42 years of accumulated wisdom about the parishes, so she’s been an invaluable resource, said Christine Sauter, director of music for the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva.
“I’ve gone to her for advice more than once,” Sauter said.
Doeblin has seen Geneva’s parishes undergo some major transformations as they implemented changes handed down after the Second Vatican Council. In particular, Doeblin has watched the roles of women in the church change drastically. When she first began playing at St. Stephen, women were discouraged from being too close to the sanctuary, she said. This presented a problem, since that’s where the church’s organ is located.
“When it came time for the first (Communion) classes, I practiced with them and I trained them,” Doeblin said. However, the pastor was worried that the bishop wouldn’t approve of her being in the sanctuary so, “When it came to the confirmation night, Father (Nolan) hired a male organist.”
During her tenure as organist, Doeblin has witnessed a number of memorable moments. One in particular involves a bride who reached the altar and suddenly became ill. Apparently she hadn’t eaten all day, so Doeblin was sent to the rectory to make a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich for the bride, who ate it in the church before the ceremony resumed.
In July, the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva planned to decrease its weekend Mass offerings in order to prepare for the future, when there will likely be fewer priests available, Sauter said. As a result, Doeblin will no longer be playing at regular weekend Masses, although she will still play at funerals.
Doeblin said she was surprised when she learned she would no longer be playing at weekend Masses, but she firmly believes God has a reason for everything that happens. She referred to a quote by Johann Sebastian Bach, a framed copy of which she has kept on the organ: “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.”