OAK HARBOR - Were the ghosts of parishioners past to appear at St. John's Lutheran Church during this year's Christmas concert, they might be surprised to find Carolyn Miller still directing the choir.
Mrs. Miller was the church's 20-year-old assistant organist when she was promoted 60 years ago to choir director, a job some said she wasn't qualified to handle. “I got the position over some people's dead bodies. They thought I was too young to do it, you know, and I probably was.”
Tomorrow night, Mrs. Miller will conduct her 60th Christmas concert at St. John's, proving her early detractors wrong one more time.
Mrs. Miller's span of service may not be a record, but it is phenomenal, said Todd Carrico, music director at Toledo's St. Paul's Lutheran Church. “Long tenures for church musicians are not unheard of, but 60 years is a long time at one church.”
Indeed, Mrs. Miller has been at St. John's so long that she remembers the choir rehearsal in 1941 when someone came in and announced that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
In the six decades she has directed the choirs at St. John's, Mrs. Miller has been best known for the single-performance concert that is always held on the second Sunday in December. This year's program will feature about 80 volunteer vocalists and instrumentalists in the church's senior, children's, bell, and brass choirs.
“From my perspective as pastor of the church, this is the highlight of the year,” said the Rev. Bill Diehm, the church's senior pastor who also sings in the senior choir for the Christmas concert. “If there's anything that we're known for as a congregation, it's our annual Christmas choir concert, and [Mrs. Miller] deserves the credit for that.”
Mrs. Miller begins planning the program in September, choosing the anthems, Christmas carols, and instrumental interludes the various ensembles will perform.
Each group then begins practicing on its own. “The night of the program is the first time we do it together,” Mrs. Miller said. “And we hope that it goes together.”
With such an arrangement, Mrs. Miller doesn't like to brag about the program ahead of time, she said, “because you never know.”
After 60 years, however, there is little cause for concern.
“The best way to describe it is we start the concert and 65 to 75 minutes and 20-some pieces of music later it's over with no breaks in between,” Mr. Diehm said. “It just goes from one thing to another and it's always well-blocked and choreographed. It's just quite an evening of music.”
Choir members wear their black-and-white choir robes, reflecting a tradition Mrs. Miller has insisted on retaining.
“We just got new ones and of course some in the choir wanted to get some of those lovely-looking colored ones. I said as long as I'm choir director, you're wearing black and white. Those are traditional colors for a church choir. And they look beautiful when they're in them.”
Mrs. Miller, who is generally viewed by her choristers as being at the helm of a tightly run ship, also has banned earrings and hair ornaments from performances. And, she has little patience with choir members who chatter during rehearsal.
“They all talk too much. There's not much difference between the children's and the senior choir.”
Carolyn Miller was Carolyn Kenneman when she took the choir director's position after serving as the church's assistant organist for the previous six years. Growing up at St. John's she had always wanted to play the organ and began her musical studies in piano at the former Toledo Conservatory of Music. Later, she took organ lessons from John Gordon Seely, who was organist at Toledo's Trinity Episcopal Church from 1919 to 1945.
In her years at St. John's, she has outlasted a procession of pastors and adapted to at least five different hymnals, each with different harmonies. She also managed to meet and marry a husband, raise two children, both of whom were in her youth choirs, and continue giving piano and organ lessons to private students.
Mrs. Miller's late husband, John, a bass who also played saxophone, sang in the choir under his wife's direction until his death 17 years ago. “He was my biggest encourager,” Mrs. Miller said. “I thought after he was gone I wouldn't be able to do this.”
But she has continued as have several choir members who have sung under her direction for nearly her entire tenure.
Among them is Marge Priesmin, who took piano lessons from Mrs. Miller, sang in the children's choir, and has been a longtime member of the senior choir.
“It's almost phenomenal that she hasn't changed as much as you would expect,” Mrs. Priesmin said of the St. John's music director, who played the organ for her 1956 wedding to Bill Priesmin.
“At 80, she's still teaching piano and she still has the children's choir. She's a dynamo. ... It's just unbelievable how she plans and coordinates our music with the church year. She even changes the bulletin board outside the church with little sayings.”
Mrs. Priesmin said although Mrs. Miller is a traditionalist, she has a progressive streak as evidenced by her willingness to introduce contemporary religious music.
“ ... We hate to think of a time when she's not going to be up there waving her arm at us.”
With each passing year, Mrs. Miller said she thinks that it may be time to retire gracefully and pass the baton to a new director. “But I don't know what will happen to me when I give it up. I've done it for so long.”
For now, she will bask in the congratulations expected to be in
The annual St. John's Lutheran Christmas Concert begins at 7 p.m. tomorrow. The church is located at Church and Ottawa streets in Oak Harbor. Admission is free, but an offering will be taken for the church music scholarship program.