After 61 years as organist at St. Mary Czestochowa in Hawkins, Margie Plaza has decided to say goodbye to the organ and retire from the parish's music ministry. (Catholic Herald photo by A.M. Kelley).HAWKINS
-- Margie Plaza
has played her church's organ for 61 years. She has known five bishops in the Superior Diocese and more parish priests than she can remember. She's played for many first- and second-generation weddings and funerals. Now Plaza says the pipes, the pipes are calling her to retire.
"There comes a time when you make too many mistakes on the organ," she said. "And you sound like a frog. Then it's time to quit."
Plaza belongs to St. Mary of Czestochowa in Hawkins, a small parish founded by Polish immigrants on a quiet and pretty county road in the middle of Wisconsin farmland.
She's turning the job over to her great-niece, Sue Plaza
. The 82-year-old Margie won't miss the paycheck, because for the past 40 years there hasn't been one. At first, the parish paid her $50 a year. Later it was raised to $100 but dropped to nothing when fund raising for a building project began.
"When we started saving money for the new church, I told them to save it," she said.
There have been many other changes too. Fr. Philip Kuczek was the pastor when she became organist.
"He could sing like you wouldn't believe," she said.
Masses were in Latin but all the hymns were sung in Polish. Kuczek gave two homilies at each Mass, one in Polish and one in English.
"We sat there for quite awhile," she said.
She was born Margie Collins into a Lutheran family and converted to Catholicism after marrying a Polish dairy farmer, Edward Plaza in 1942. The newlyweds wanted to attend the same church. Would it be her Lutheran or his Catholic church? Plaza's new Catholic mother-in-law cast the deciding vote.
"If you become a Lutheran," she said to her son, "who will drive me to church?"
That settled the matter and the new bride stepped into St. Mary's with an open mind and heart.
Three years later, in 1945, the organist retired and no one took her place. The organ sat silent and the church was without music and it really got to Plaza during one particular service. It was a memorial for a young soldier, Billy Maksyn, who was killed in the South Pacific during the war.
"No one played the organ," she said. "I thought, how sad. Then -- maybe that's a message for me."
A week later Plaza adjusted the organ stool and began learning how to play the instrument. Her musical background consisted of a mere six months of piano lessons at the age of 12 from a Mrs. Kleinert who rode a train 20 miles from her home in Ladysmith to Hawkins to teach the area's children. The piano teacher stayed overnight with the Collins family and Plaza's lessons were traded for the room and board. But the arrangement ended abruptly when Kleinert slipped on ice and broke her hip.
Plaza didn't let her lack of training stop her from trying to get music back into St. Mary's.
"I was never very proficient," she said. "I was just handy."
Handy enough to figure out how to manage a pump organ -- the first of four organs the parish owned and Plaza played on.
She also had to lead the choir and the congregation in song.
"It was hard for me to get used to the people not singing," she said. "In the Lutheran church everybody sings. It was like pulling teeth to get those (Catholics) to sing."
One of her original choir members, 92-year-old Bernice Kramer, is still part of the parish.
There have been a few mishaps, most notably the groom who fainted during his wedding ceremony. He lives in Florida now but visits Hawkins occasionally.
"Every time I see him I have to remind him of it," she said.
She took pride in her job as organist and only remembers nearly letting the congregation down once. A funeral for a serviceman was being held at St. Mary but Plaza's 1928 Chevy sedan wouldn't start. A neighbor came to the rescue and got her to the church -- late.
"The honor guard was lined up and waiting for me," she said. "I was so embarrassed."
Not a bad attendance record for 61 years.
Her great-niece has gradually taken over as organist as Plaza has stepped back. She even stopped playing for weddings a few years ago.
"The young brides came in with new (modern) music," she said. "I couldn't play for them."
She was widowed in 1990
and last fall sold her 40-acre farm. She moved into Hawkins recently and rents a room in the home of an old friend, 92-year-old Joe Zubeck, who needs her help. He's a diabetic and Plaza assists with his medication and housekeeping. But she also stays active in her parish.
"I only retired from the music ministry," she said. "I'm still going to do all the usual things that people do."
"All the usual things" include being president of the Altar Society, working at funeral dinners, arranging flowers and cleaning the church.
So what does a parish give an organist after 61 years of service? A gold watch? No, something better, Plaza said.
"It was a gift certificate to a ladies' shop," she said. "And I blew it all."