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Music at Eighth Street Mennonite Church

During our August centennial weekend many people mentioned the central place of music in the life of this congregation, in the past and today. Certainly congregational singing has been a major piece of corporate worship, but so have been special choirs and instrumental music. Although many things have changed at Eighth Street over the course of a century, reading earlier accounts of music in worship, one has the sense that the style and approach to music has remained remarkably constant. The congregation’s music is formal, in the sense of being well-rehearsed, but varied in instrumental, accompanied vocal, and a capella vocal styles.

In 1922 church minutes refer to a “choir-to-be” and the next year a group from the church was meeting occasionally to practice and receive vocal music lessons from two Goshen High School music teachers. By 1925 a church choir formally organized and began to sing regularly as part of worship on Sunday mornings and during some Sunday evening programs. Music-making also functioned as an important way in which members connected with one another beyond Sunday. During the 1930s-1950s, for example, adult and youth choirs were organized with their ow officers and social activities. The youth choir, known as Soalteba, sometimes held special fundraising activities to buy sheet music. Special music was also part of almost every Women’s Missionary Society monthly meeting.

The church’s music ministry has benefited not only from broad participation, but also stable and consistent leadership. Cordelia Riesen Sprunger served as director of music from 1925 to 1954, followed by Arlene Hartzler (Christner) from 1954 to 1962, and Merrill Swartley from 1962 to 1970. Doyle Preheim led the choir for much of the time between 1972 and 1983, and Roger Nafziger has done so for the most part since then. Karen Hershberger has chaired the current Music Committee since 1989.

Music committees past and present have regularly included aspiring and accomplished youth in the church’s music-making. In one case, a high school student served as organist for two years. Stephen Morris, who came from St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, was recommended by Dave Plank, an Eighth Street member who was also a Goshen High School music teacher. Morris played weekly from 1972-1974 until he left for college. Rachel Kreider’s history notes that Morris “sometimes played the organ with an exuberance that startled older members, but he was capable, personable, and greatly appreciated.”

Eighth Street had first purchased an organ in 1937, and for the next six years Grace Yoder (Wulliman), who had been the church pianist, was the organist. During the next year and a half Phyllis Hartzler (Baumgartner) and Jean Maurer (Miller) played the organ, until Evelyn Hartzler (Bushong) began her many years as Eighth Street organist in the fall of 1944. During the late 1940s Evelyn studied music in Chicago, but returned to Goshen each weekend to play on Sunday morning. In 1947 the church sold its organ (for $200 more than it had cost in 1937!) and purchased a higher quality Hammond organ that Evelyn recommended. Evelyn continued as organist until 1972 and then again from 1976 to 1988 and occasionally thereafter. Organists in recent years have been Christine Gerig Way, from 1997 to 2011, and currently Patricia Oakley. In 1997, following a four-year study and discernment process, the congregation purchased a Schlicker pipe organ.

Congregational singing has been a central and deeply appreciated part of Sunday morning worship. As new Mennonite hymnals appeared, Eighth Street purchased them. In 1992, with the release of Hymnal: A Worship Book, the Music Committee began selecting and featuring a lessfamiliar “hymn of the month” in a rotation that has widened the congregation’s repertoire and familiarity with the hymnal’s content. Since 2005 and 2007 the “hymn of the month” selections have also been drawn from Sing the Journey and Sing the Story. Each year in January, Hymn of the Month features an order of worship including all twelve of the previous year’s selections. Other worship traditions include the congregation singing “Hallelujah Chorus” on the Sunday before Christmas and a musically-rich Christmas Eve service.

Music has also connected the congregation to other churches. In the 1930s various Goshen city church choirs—including Eighth Street—combined to perform Handel’s “The Messiah” and Stainer’s “The Crucifixion.” In the 1950s and 1960s Central Conference/Central District congregations in northern Indiana pooled their singers to perform cantatas, often on Palm Sunday, such as “The Holy City” by Alfred Gual. Sometimes the Eighth Street choir would travel to Bluffton, Ohio, for mass choir gatherings. Marvin Dirks, church music professor at Mennonite Biblical Seminary sometimes came to Goshen and led evening hymnsings at Eighth Street, advertised to a broad audience, and during the 1960s Arlene Hartzler (Christner) compiled and co-edited The Children’s Hymnary (1968), a youth hymnal published by the General Conference Mennonite Church for use across North America.

Some music groups originating at Eighth Street have performed more widely. For example, the Menno Singers, a men’s chorus formed by Woodrow Risser, Luther Shetler, Ed Brookmyer, and others from Eighth Street in 1946, gave many programs throughout Elkhart County and even in other states. In fact, they soon included men from many other churches (though they kept the ‘Menno Singers’ name). The group continued through 1982. In recent years the Schmaltzentrubers, an eclectic acoustic trio of Evan Miller, Steve Johnson, and Leonard Beechy, have sung frequently at Eighth Street and beyond. About 1986 the church’s Worship Committee invited the three to prepare music for a Sunday morning. They discovered how much they enjoyed playing and singing together, and decided to continue. At the last minute they needed a name for their group and came up with the playful Schmaltzentruber label. In 2004 the group was invited to perform at the Indiana State Fair as part of the main stage Traditional Arts of Indiana program.

In 2012 Karen Hershberger closed the Music Committee’s annual report to the church, “We are blessed to have an abundance of musical talent in our church, from youth to older adults, singers to instrumentalists, leaders to accompanists, soloists to ensemble members. The willing participation of so many is appreciated by the entire congregation ….”

Sources: Evelyn L. Bushong and Nelson L. Bushong, “History of Our Organs and Organists”; Rachel Kreider, The History of the Eighth Street Mennonite Church, 1913-1978 (1987); http://www.indiana.edu/~tradarts/docs/FairBk04.pdf

—Steve Nolt