By Katie Dahlstrom
Herald Staff Writer
Carol Harden’s life brims with music.
The 77-year-old Clinton native has been playing the organ at First Congregational Church for 50 years, a milestone her church plans to celebrate this Sunday, Oct. 21.
Harden’s love of music extends beyond her lengthy dedication to her church. Music played a role in Harden’s childhood, her marriage, raising her family and many of the friendships she holds dear.
“It’s a commitment,” Harden said. “It’s kind of the way I worship. It’s part of my life.”
Harden’s love for music began at an early age. Growing up, she was surrounded by family members who played musical instruments. In fifth grade she started taking piano lessons, which she took for 10 years. She took one year of organ lessons.
During High School, Harden met her late husband of nearly 53 years, John, who played the drums. The high school sweethearts were married in 1957. Shortly after, the couple moved to Bangor, Maine where John was stationed at Dow Air Force Base. There, in the chapel, Harden found herself playing the organ every Sunday for nearly four years.
When they moved back to Clinton in 1962, Harden returned to First Congregational Church to find the organist had recently left. At the time, the 27-year-old was a mother of one and ready to spread her talent as an organist with her congregation. She and John would raise three children together, with music permeating the family’s growth.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my husband. He would sit at church with them while I’d be up at the organ. When they would be baptized, he’d meet me down at the baptismal fountain with the baby and I’d walk down from the organ and meet him,” she said.
Throughout her 50 years serving as the organist, Harden’s also played for different events such as weddings, jubilees for the Canticle, and other celebrations. Among the many people she’s met is Karen Marshall, who hopes to be as passionate an organ player as Harden.
“She’s my idol,” Marshall said. “I want to be an organist like Carol. You can tell she’s doing it because she really loves it. Carol is probably one the most dedicated, loyal and talented people you’ll ever meet.”
While the lure of sleeping in has, on occasion, crept into her mind, Harden said she never chose lounging over playing. In the past half century, Harden has only missed a maximum of six Sundays in one year, although she usually only misses one or two.
“I never have regretted playing,” she said. “If I’m sitting there in church, I’m getting the music ready.”
Harden even ventured to late night Christmas Eve services to provide music for the congregation.
“My husband would stay home with the kids because it was cold and it started at 11 p.m. I used to start up that hill and start slipping and sliding. I’d have to park down on Fifth Street and walk up the grass to get there,” she said, laughing.
Harden’s played in nearly 55 churches, across four states, with many different people. At times she finds herself getting an education as she plays.
“It’s always a learning process,” she said. “You have to keep yourself open. It’s really interesting to see all the ideas everyone has. You can gain a lot.”
Her openness is something friends, such as Sister Hilary Mullany, OSF, admire in her.
“She does this with such generosity,” Sister Mullany said. “She’s got a really open heart.”
Harden also appreciates the different personalities organs and other instruments have. While the one she plays at First Congregational Church is a pipe organ, her talents have graced many other types of instruments.
“She could handle an organ or a piano, or a broken organ or a broken piano,” Sister Mullany said.
On average Harden said, she’s volunteered 15 hours a week to play music at the church. Although, she said, the music sometimes carries her away from thoughts about time.
“You can lose yourself in it. Music’s very therapeutic,” she said.
In honor of Harden’s 50-year dedication, the First Congregational Church will celebrate her at a “Tribute Reception” from 2 to 4 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 21 at the First Congregational Church, 700 N. Bluff Blvd. The community is invited to the celebration, which will begin with a program in the church sanctuary at 2 p.m. and be followed by a reception in the church dining room.