North Carolina Episcopal church to honor organist for 60 years of service

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Sep 28, 2023

Joan Clodfelter, who for 60 years has been the full-time organist for Grace Church in Lexington, North Carolina, will have the organ named for her during a celebration on Oct. 1. Photo: Ellie McKinney

[Episcopal News Service] On Oct. 1, Grace Episcopal Church, Lexington, North Carolina, will honor Joan Clodfelter, its minister of music, for 60 years of full-time service to the church by, among other things, naming the organ in her honor.

Of those years, she told Episcopal News Service, “It’s been quite wonderful, all 60 of them.”

Clodfelter, 89, has spent nearly a lifetime playing music. She started taking piano lessons when she was 8 years old, and at 14 she was asked to play the organ for the Lutheran church she and her family attended. She played there throughout high school and while she attended the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina, now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. In 1951, when she was a college freshman, she began playing at Grace Church for some weddings and funerals, plus a few Sundays – an arrangement that lasted for 12 years.

In 1963, when the church needed a full-time organist and choir director, Clodfelter was hired, and she has stayed ever since.

Things were a little different in those early days, she told ENS. Worship was in a small brick building that later became the chapel after the current church was built in 1985. Choir rehearsals were in the nearby rectory, where the priest and his family lived. But the biggest changes, she said, came with the adoption of a new Book of Common Prayer in 1979 and Hymnal in 1982.

According to a statement about Clodfelter from the church’s rector, the Rev. Ed Kelaher, she remained a Lutheran when she took the job at Grace until after her mother died so as not to break “her Lutheran loyalist heart.” It was an easy change, Clodfelter said, because after so many services at Grace, “I felt so Episcopalian.”

Since then, she said, “Being associated with The Episcopal Church and providing music has been the crowning glory of my life.”

One of the best parts of her work, Clodfelter said, is leading the choir. But, Kelaher said, “She doesn’t merely preside over a choir rehearsal, she holds court.” He said that during rehearsals, “her opening ‘stand up’ routine is the stuff of late-night talk shows filled with quips, self-deprecating humor, biblical and cultural comical references, and anecdotes of every flavor.”

Clodfelter said the associations she has made with so many choir members have been deeply important. “The choir has become my family over the years,” she said. “I have played for choir members’ weddings, the baptism of their children, weddings of children and grandchildren, and their funerals.”

A lifelong resident of Lexington, she also has had a full life outside of music at the church. She and her husband Bob, who died in 2005, had four children and, eventually, six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and she still sees them all regularly. She also spent 25 years teaching first- and second-grade students, which she had to give up when she was diagnosed with cancer and needed to minimize exposure to viruses and germs while undergoing treatment. But during that time, she never missed a Sunday at the organ, she said, and she recovered and remains cancer-free.

She and Bob also loved to travel, visiting 48 states, missing only Alaska and Hawaii. One of her joys was spotting an Episcopal church as they drove through a town and then stopping in to see it. “I have been in lots of Episcopal churches,” she said, “including the little church in Independence, Missouri, where Margaret Truman was married. I even played a few hymns on their organ while visiting.” They had stopped at Trinity Church, which also hosted the wedding of Margaret Truman’s parents, Harry and Bess Truman, in 1919, 26 years before he became the 33rd president of the United States.

Clodfelter said she truly has enjoyed providing music for Grace Church, where she serves “a wonderful parish full of loving, committed people” and called Kelaher “a wonderful priest for us, very pastoral.”

In summing up her years of service she said, “I love to play the organ and the opportunity to be involved in music. I’ve stayed because of my love for the Book of Common Prayer.”

Kelaher said Clodfelter’s humility made planning a 60th-anniversary celebration tricky, but the parish managed to pull it together. In addition to naming the organ in her honor during the 10:30 a.m. service, there will be an afternoon organ concert, as well as vocal and instrumental performances by parishioners, the homecoming of several choir alumni, a reception and the presentation of special gifts.

But, he said, regarding how parishioners see Clodfelter, “all that falls short of the unspeakable gratitude and admiration of the hearts of the parish.”

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.