August 14, 2020

‘Let me go out on a high note’

94-year-old organist retires after 81 years of making music for the Church and God

Don Gutzwiller plays the organ at St. Peter Church in Franklin County on July 27. Earlier this year, Guzwiller, 94, retired from accompanying liturgies at St. Peter and at the St. Paul campus of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County after 81 years of ministry. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

Don Gutzwiller plays the organ at St. Peter Church in Franklin County on July 27. Earlier this year, Guzwiller, 94, retired from accompanying liturgies at St. Peter and at the St. Paul campus of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County after 81 years of ministry. (Photo by Sean Gallagher)

By Sean Gallagher

FRANKLIN COUNTY—Don Gutzwiller was only 13 in 1939 when he sat down for the first time at the organ bench to accompany the celebration of the Mass at his southeastern Indiana parish.

His love of his faith and music kept him there on the St. Paul campus of All Saints Parish in Dearborn County, where he is a member, and at St. Peter Parish in Franklin County, for the next 81 years.

It was the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited liturgical music in parishes and poses a heightened threat to the elderly, that led the 94-year-old Gutzwiller to walk away from the organ bench for the final time earlier this year.

“I never would have stepped down if it hadn’t been for this virus,” said Gutzwiller, who is in good health, lives on his own and still drives.

As natural as the choice to retire would be, given the circumstances of the pandemic, it was still a wrenching decision for Gutzwiller.

“I sweated bullets. I didn’t want to,” he said. “I prayed as hard as I could to make the right decision. Not one person—family, friends, people that I hardly knew—told me that I made a mistake [in retiring]. I didn’t want to, but … I thought, ‘Let me go out on a high note.’ ”

‘My way to please the Lord’

Gutzwiller grew up in New Alsace in a family of musicians. His paternal grandmother had earned a degree in art and music at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in St. Mary-of-the-Woods. He also had three aunts who were blessed with musical talent.

He learned to play piano at a young age from his grandmother. In August 1939, the Franciscan sisters who ordinarily accompanied the liturgy at St. Paul Church in New Alsace were at their motherhouse in Oldenburg. An aunt took their place. When she planned a vacation, it was Gutzwiller’s time to play.

“I picked it up then, and I’ve been at it ever since,” he said.

After graduating from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Gutzwiller returned to southeastern Indiana where he worked as an accountant and a bank director.

In his early 20s, he married his wife Charlotte, who had grown up down the street from him in New Alsace and sang in the parish choir.

“I asked her for our first date on the organ bench,” Gutzwiller recalled.

The pair made music together at St. Paul and at St. Peter until Charlotte’s death in 2001.

Gutzwiller played at Sunday Masses at St. Paul for several decades until switching to St. Peter in 1980. At the time, he only played there because the parish “got in a pinch” and needed an organist at the last minute.

“I thought it was a one-time deal,” said Gutzwiller with a laugh.

Even while playing at St. Peter for the past 40 years, he continued to accompany funerals and weddings at St. Paul until his retirement earlier this year.

He never sought payment for his ministry from his parish and said he was only given “token money” over the years from St. Peter.

Earning money by playing the organ for the Church’s liturgy was never a priority for Gutzwiller.

“I found that it was my way to please the Lord and a way to enhance the liturgy of the Mass,” he said. “It was what I wanted to do.”

Giving glory to God

Father Vincent Lampert, pastor of St. Michael Parish in Brookville and St. Peter Parish, appreciated Gutzwiller’s love for the Church’s worship.

“For him, it wasn’t a job,” said Father Lampert. “It was a ministry of service just doing something that he loved, which was music. Music is definitely in his blood. It was a way that he could share his talents with others and, in doing so, give glory to God.”

This decades-long service helped St. Peter’s parishioners recognize the value of sacred music, Father Lampert said.

“Sometimes people see music as filler material to get us from one point in the Mass to the next,” he said. “But he helped us realize that music is an integral part of the liturgical celebration and in giving praise to God.”

Father Jonathan Meyer, Gutzwiller’s pastor at All Saints Parish, noted that the retired organist’s interest in the faith went beyond music.

“He is always so quick to compliment on a homily, a Mass or what is happening in the parish,” said Father Meyer. “He follows Masses online and reads the bulletin like a hawk. He loves to see the parish thriving and has joy on his face every time I see him.”

Father Meyer’s love for Gutzwiller is shared by members of St. Peter’s choir. They showed their affection for him by coming to his home for a surprise visit in late June, spending time with him outside while social distancing.

“It was wonderful,” Gutzwiller recalled. “We sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ That’s when the tears came.”

As much as part of him would still love to accompany liturgies, Gutzwiller is also immensely grateful for offering this service to the Church for so many decades.

“I liked to strive for the highest praise of God that we can do,” he said. “As the years drifted by, never did I think that I would spend my life playing for the Church. But, as time went on, I thought that God had blessed me.”

Father Meyer sees Gutzwiller’s 81 years of ministry as a witness through which God will continue to bless the Church in the years to come.

“Don is a sign of hope and an inspiration to so many to keep singing, keep playing, keep serving,” he said. “His living witness of faith, joy and music will play on for a long time.” †

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