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Angelic organ heard on high

Instead of shopping for Christmas gifts on her lunch hour, Rita Rowe walks from work down the street to Eagle Harbor Congregational Church.

In the sanctuary, she lifts the instrument’s roll-top lid, pushes down two stops, inserts a computer card that cues a “Flemish bell” sound – and rolls the opening chords of “Joy to the World” in arpeggio.

The chiming carol peals over downtown Winslow, as it has every year since the church first hooked up the organ to speakers in the bell tower in 1962.

“The carols are all lovely,” Rowe said of her daily, holiday-season performances, “but I’d say my favorite is ‘Angels We Have Heard on High.’”

Rowe plays arrangements from a 1950s-vintage book, “The Art of Playing the Modern Carillon,” or simply opens the hymnal.

She first began playing organ at the Winslow church when she was just 13 years old.

She started piano lessons with a cousin at age 6, but found the organ easier.

“I have small hands,” she said, “and it’s hard for me to stretch to do octave (eight-note) work.

“But on the organ, you can use the foot pedals for that.”

Rowe played throughout her teen years, and sometimes came back from college to play.

After marrying, she continued to accompany the congregation while her husband Adrian taught Sunday school.

In her 43 years as church organist at Eagle Harbor, she has played for six ministers and eight choir directors. She has also seen organs come and go.

In 1986, the church bought a larger instrument, which seems to Rowe to have a smaller sound.

“We used to be able to hear the Christmas music way over at Rolling Bay,” she said, “but now it only carries as far as Winslow.”

As one generation of parishioners grew up and another passed away, Rowe’s music has scored the script of their lives.

“I was looking through old church directories recently, and so many of these dear people aren’t there any more,” she said. “They were like grandparents to me.”

Rowe’s relationship to the church is changing, as well, as she and her husband slip into what she calls “retirement mode.”

She officially stepped down as church organist last June.

“I just want more time with family,” Rowe said. “It’s every single Sunday, and I don’t want to be so tied down any more.”

Rowe says she will return for Christmas and for other “guest appearances,” playing on the Fourth of July, and for weddings and other special occasions.

Her absence at the organ on Sundays has been noticed.

“We’ve been missing her, so it’s good to have her come back and play,” said Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Church pastor.

“Not only do we miss her – we haven’t yet found anyone to replace her.”

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