By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN If one had attended a worship service at Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) in Cokato between 1963 and 2016, the attendee would have heard Karen Anderson playing the organ in accompaniment to service hymns, choirs, and instrumental duets.
Now, however, Anderson can be found in the pews among the rest of ELC’s congregation, having retired as church organist in December after 53 years of service.
Her first time playing for church occurred in her hometown of Hector at the age of 13, when her aunt, who was also the church organist, became sick.
“Pastor called late Saturday night and asked if I would play [piano] for church,” said Anderson. “That was my first experience playing for church.”
Anderson continued serving her community through music by playing in school and for student choirs, solos, and ensembles. After graduation, she attended the Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI), which at the time was in Minneapolis, where she studied parish work. She also received six months of organ lessons before completing her studies.
In 1963, Anderson was offered a call by Pastor Russell Peterson to serve as parish worker and organist at ELC. After thinking and praying about it, Anderson accepted the offer.
While her occupation changed over the years, Anderson always stayed on as organist.
“There’s something about an organ leading worship that’s just really powerful,” she stated. “The Lutheran church is called the ‘singing church,’ and it’s just fun to play.”
In considering music’s role in a worship, Anderson described it as “very important.”
“A lot of time, music can reach people where the spoken word doesn’t,” she explained. “Sometimes when [experiencing] heavy times, sad times, the hymns that are in our head can bring comfort or bring joy because they’re just kind of stuck in there . . . just come popping up whenever it seems like the right time that they should be there.”
An example of this occurred when Anderson chose to perform hymn-based music during a funeral, instead of her usual selection of “general music.”
“There were several people that came and said, ‘it’s really nice to hear the hymns while we’re sitting there waiting for the funeral to start,’ and, of course, you hear the melody and if you’ve heard them enough, then the words come, and so I just switched,” said Anderson.
During one funeral, the deceased’s widow thanked Anderson for playing her husband’s favorite hymn, which Anderson had not known nor intended.
“That was a God thing,” she remembered. “It was just in my [choice of] music for that day.”
Although she found great joy in playing for the church, Anderson decided to retire as the music notes became difficult to see.
“[Plus], after all this time, it’s time to let somebody else do it,” she added. Having played for a long time, however, Pastor Timothy Wheatley said to Anderson, “We’re not going to hire somebody right away, because then it will be, ‘well, they don’t play like Karen did.’”
“After all these years, they were just going to give it a break,” said Anderson. In the meantime, ELC’s youth director, Bergen Nelson is alternating playing piano during services with another congregation member.
“It’s nice to sit in the pew, [and] not be responsible for keeping the music going,” Anderson commented. “As we get older, it’s not quite so easy to be on top of things to make sure everything’s right.”
“It’s [also] just kinda fun to sit in the pew and see the people,” she continued, “because usually by the time I got off the bench and downstairs [after the service], a lot of them were out of the church and so I never got a chance to visit with anybody.”
Anderson’s retirement allows her to visit other church services as well, including her daughter’s church in West St. Paul for Easter Sunday.
“That will be the first time in 53 years that I’ve been able to go someplace else for [Easter] Sunday,” said Anderson. “The church where I went to Sunday services when I was at LBI has a 6 a.m. Easter Sunday service, and I always thought about going down there, but then it was always, ‘well I might not get back to Cokato in time’.”
Anderson credits being able to serve as organist for so many years to the support of her family and the congregation.
“It’s just been good to play, use my gift. God gives you the gift of music, and it needs to be shared,” said Anderson. “Whatever gift we have, whether it’s music or anything else, [if used, it] builds up the church and encourages people.”
The community is invited to attend Anderson’s retirement celebration and lunch Sunday, March 26 following the 10 a.m. worship service at ELC.