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Marie Downes has played for four decades but still not an organist

Playing for God: Marie Downes (left) in her usual spot ready to play the organ at Sacred Heart Church, Sandgate, with members of the choir.

MARIE Downes has been playing the organ at Sacred Heart Church, Sandgate, for more than 45 years but she’s been keeping a secret from her fellow parishioners – she’s not an organist.

“I’m not an organist … I’m a pianist,” Miss Downes said late last year as she prepared for a special celebration the Sandgate Brighton parish held to pay tribute to her for her dedication to the music ministry over the decades.

“Those of us (organists in the parish) who are pianists and not organists don’t play (the new organ) as it should be played.”

But few would notice, and who would dare criticise someone who has so faithfully kept the music playing for so long?

Marie’s been playing the piano since she was a nine-year-old student at Sacred Heart School, Sandgate.

It was something she was itching to have a go at before that though.

“Mum used to tell me that when she and Dad took me to see Santa when I was a kid and when he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I would always say a doll and a toy piano – that was probably before I started playing,” she said.

“I loved music and it wasn’t long before I started playing piano.”

Having been born in Sandgate and lived in the Brisbane northern bayside suburb or next-door Deagon all her life, she has always been part of the parish.

And, for many of her Sundays, she’s been at the organ for 9am Mass.

She started soon after congregational singing became a regular part of Mass following the Second Vatican Council. 

“I suppose I thought, ‘Well, (playing the organ at Mass) was one way of giving back, because I was lucky that my parents were interested enough to pay for me to have (piano) lessons, and I always loved the piano’,” Marie said.

The chance to have singing at Mass was something Marie relished, and organising singers and choosing hymns for Masses with a group of parishioners is something she still takes seriously.

And there’s the occasional not-so-serious moment.

“We’ve had some funny experiences,” Marie said. “I mean we always had people – an occasional one – that thought they could sing and they couldn’t …

“You’ve got to be a bit of a diplomat at times.”

There was one particular “fellow in the parish that fancied himself as a singer, and he was the only one there (to lead the singing) one Mass, and I started off on one hymn and he sang a different one to what I was playing, all the way through …”

“I was saying (in a whisper) ‘That’s wrong …’ but he wasn’t taking any notice …. He was happily carrying on …,” Marie said.

“One verse was enough … I stopped. Oh dear.”

On most weekends when Marie was playing at Mass, she would be playing in a three-piece band at a dance on Saturday night.

She taught modern music at Shefte College of Music for more than 10 years, and through that she was asked if she’d be interested in playing dance music.

“So I did that from about 1966 until just about two years ago … always in a little trio – piano, sax and drums,” she said.

“It was for old-time/new vogue dances.

“I enjoyed the dance music, because it was all the stuff that I grew up with.”

During the working week, Marie was busy with secretarial work.

For more than 10 years, she was secretary to the Queensland manager of Olympic Tyres.

“Then we got taken over, like what happened to everybody at that stage, and it was taken over by Dunlop,” she said.

“But we were moved out to Yeronga and that was no good for me because driving from here to Yeronga … I got sick of that so I resigned and I went to work as the secretary to the congregational leader of the Sisters of Mercy in Brisbane, Sr Kath Burke …”

Having worked for the late Sr Burke and Mercies’ Brisbane leadership team, Marie retired from paid employment from there.

Marie said she wasn’t a musician with “a wonderful ear for music”.

“I’ve got good rhythm and I’ve worked hard at it,” she said.

“I can play from memory but not by ear.”

Marie has formal qualifications in classical music and her house is full of books of music, but she doesn’t play any of the classics anymore.

“If I did play anything, one of my old favourites was Christian Sinding’s piece for piano Rustle of Spring,” she said.

Asked if she had a favourite hymn, she said “I like them all, although there are some I’m not too keen on …”

“One that seems to be a general favourite is Here I Am Lord  – everyone seems to like that one,” she said. 

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