ESME Gray, the organist for Wynnum’s Guardian Angels Church for almost 60 years, still remembers the advice of Mercy Sister Mary Estelle who ran the choir for many years.
“Whenever things got tough, she would simply say: ‘Offer it up’,” the 81-year-old stalwart of the bayside community’s musical life said.
Esme had cause to remember these words on several occasions.
“I’ll never forget when all the beautiful Mozart and Beethoven Masses sung in Latin disappeared,” she said.
“That was after Vatican II (Second Vatican Council).
“The parish priest then decreed the choir was to lead the congregation.
“That meant no more singing in parts either, something those of us in the choir loved doing.”
Esme, traumatised by this loss, said to Sr Mary Estelle who used to rehearse the choir every Thursday night for Sunday Mass: “How we are going to put up with this change?”
“‘Offer it up’, was her only comment,” said Esme with a smile. The advice came in handy during dark times at the end of 2009. Esme was diagnosed with colon cancer and her weight dropped and with it her energy.
Not only was Esme playing the organ at Guardian Angels’ every Sunday, but she was also responsible for rehearsing and conducting the Wynnum Choral Society – an organisation with which she had been involved in various capacities for nearly 50 years.
First as a pianist then as a conductor, she’d contributed to the society’s bi-annual fundraiser to support local charities.
She was also involved in other community groups including Meals on Wheels.
Many thought she would have to step down from these responsibilities. But this was an underestimation.
Esme’s sister-in-law helped during her recovery from the operation.
Unable to climb the stairs, Esme stayed in a downstairs room. Her “poor old cat Misty”, then 19 years, kept her company.
Asked whether this was a depressing time, she said: “I won’t admit to depression… I don’t believe in that.
“I had a dear old English friend who used to say: ‘Why can’t people just get on with it?’”
And indeed Esme did.
Within four weeks of her operation, she was back playing the organ and went on to conduct the Wynnum Choral Society’s fundraising event with her customary enthusiasm.
“I was also very pleased to be able to tell (Capuchin Brother) Bernie he didn’t need to bring Comunion to me any more… I was now able to get to Mass again by myself,” she said.
Within two years she was able to visit Italy and her beloved Rome for the 10th time, this time with her youngest niece, 21-year-old Stephanie.
How did she get through such a challenging time?
“Well the surgeon’s skill certainly helped,” she said. “Also I had not only the Catholic community praying for me but all my friends in the Uniting and Anglican churches connected to the choral society.”
Esme’s love of music had been evident at an early age. At St Benedict’s, East Brisbane, she was conducting a timpani band at seven.
“The nuns came round and asked my father could I learn music,” she said.
Very quickly she was learning singing and the piano.
A slight halt to her musical education came when she was 10 and moved to country Monto where her bank-manager father had been transferred.
She next went to board at Lourdes Hill College, Hawthorne, for her secondary schooling, back with “the Good Sams” (Sisters of the Good Samaritan). Here she showed a diligent approach to music studies.
“When I was at boarding school the music students used to go down and practise between four o’clock and five every day,” she said.
“They had this cottage with big old pianos in it and these tiny cubicles.
“Well some of the other girls used to fool and I couldn’t understand it.
“And I’d be practising my technique and everything… I’d concentrate for the whole hour and they’d be fooling. More fool them… I won all the music prizes.”
She went on to further music studies and in 1951 was awarded the Associate Diploma in Music and a teacher’s diploma in 1953.
Esme taught music from 1952 to 1954 at St Columba’s School, Wilston.
By then her father had been transferred back to Wynnum and Esme moved back with her family.
At the beginning of 1955, she resigned from teaching to join the Commonwealth Bank. Around this time, Esme also offered her services to the Guardian Angels’ choir.
“This was when I met Sister Mary Estelle and she sent me straight to work,” she said.
“Sister mainly played organ and when she couldn’t, I was the deputy.”
Esme, in the years that followed, also became involved with the local Savoyards theatre group – performed 11 shows on stage, five of them in principal roles, and also was pianist for 13 shows.
She also found time to teach religion at Wynnum Central State School, played piano for the Brisbane CWA amalgamated choir and sang and played piano with the Brisbane Welsh singers.
At one point, she spent time playing piano and training young people for pantomimes with the Mercury Youth Theatre.
However, it’s clear that her role as organist for the Guardian Angels’ choir has a special place in her heart.
She’s soon to have a cataract operation, but is already planning to get back to her music ministry as soon as possible.
Asked what has kept her turning up faithfully to play organ up in the church’s choir loft all these years, she quickly makes it clear that it’s not a chore.
“When the priest goes to thank me I say: ‘Don’t thank me… it’s my privilege to do this’,” she said.
“And music at Mass is so important.
“As dear old Sister Mary Estelle used to say: ‘Remember – to sing is to pray twice’.”