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Arts and Culture

'Great Saint of Congregational Music' Still Going Strong After 70 Years

Susan Sharon

AUBURN, Maine - This weekend the West Auburn Congregational Church will celebrate a second CD release by one of its oldest members.

Eighty-six-year-old Charles Marshall has been playing the organ at the church since before the end of World War II. During that time he can count on one hand the number of times he's missed a service. And he has no plans to stop doing what he loves.

Every Sunday morning, several dozen parishioners settle into wooden pews in their 200-year-old church as Charles Marshall opens worship with a musical prelude.  And every week it's a different selection.  

Marshall was a pianist for his high school chorus in 1945 when his music teacher asked him to play the organ for an upcoming concert at a church that had no piano.

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
West Auburn Congregational Church member Richard Creighton sings "Go Tell It On the Mountain."

"I says, 'I can't play the organ. I've never tried it. I've never seen one, hardly,' " Marshall says. "He says, 'You go up and practice,' and he says, 'We'll have the concert.'  And we did."

Despite his initial reluctance, Marshall's been playing the organ in this same church ever since. He estimates he's outlasted 30 ministers, played the organ at hundreds of weddings and funerals and memorized almost as many hymns. Church moderator Bill Hiss says that's just one of the reasons Marshall is so special.

"What to say about Charles Marshall?!  He's one of the great saints of congregational music in the state of Maine! Seventy years!" Hiss says.

"He's excellent. And if he makes a mistake he doesn't like it at all," says Mary Buker. Buker has been a member of the church for more than 60 years.  Years ago, she sang in the choir with Marshall and knows how seriously he takes his role.  Sometimes, says Buker, it's as if the music comes to him from God.

"One day he just made a little mistake and he started crying, and he said he didn't know if that was going to be it or not," she recalls. "And we're going, 'No! Please!' We just love to have him here."

The choir may be gone, but parishioners like Richard Creighton are still called upon to sing.

At the West Auburn Congregational Church, Rev. John Williams says music is as important as the spoken word.  Williams has also been coming to this church since he was a young boy.

Credit Susan Sharon / MPBN
Charles Marshall with his wife of 60 years, June.

"You know, the more music people hear, the more inspired they are, the more passionate they are," Rev. Williams says. "And I think people embrace that."
For Charles Marshall, that passion is traditional Christian music, even as much of the rest of the world is now embracing a more contemporary style.

"The type of music today in most churches - they want to get an orchestra or a band or something like that and follow the ways of the world," he says. "I don't think that should be any part of worship."

After 70 years of playing the church organ, Marshall says he's occasionally considered retirement, but the close-knit congregation, who are mostly elderly themselves,  won't hear of it.

"That's true!" he says. "I'd like to slow down but they won't let me."

For most of his life, there's only one thing that Marshall has loved more than playing church music - and that's his wife, June. They've been married for 60 years and Marshall says the music wouldn't be possible without June as his muse.