For 50 years, Helen Townsend’s work has been nothing short of a godsend.
In fact, for Helen, it’s nothing like work.
Every time she enters the Boulder Junction Community Church “it’s like coming home,” she said.
Music has been her life. And because of that, her church family, this coming Sunday, May 18, will honor her for the devotion and love she has shown to each and every one of them.
Helen has been the church organist for 50 years and if she has it her way, nothing will stop her from continuing her vocation for at least another 50.
The congregation will recognize her Sunday with a special service and community gathering that will praise all that Helen has offered through the years.
“Music has been a part of my life it seems like forever, and this means a lot to me and my church family,” Helen said earlier this week.
Yes, playing the piano was something Helen started at a very young age – “I started at about five years old on piano with lessons with the nuns at the convent in La Crosse. Then I had a teacher, Juanita Beck, and she was something special. She played the calliope in the old parades for the circuses. Her husband had a carriage pulled by midget mules. She was really something,” Helen said about her former teacher.
But then her parents bought a resort in Manitowish Waters and her family moved north in 1956. Helen was 14 at the time.
But the music didn’t stop with the move. In fact, she continued her love. She continued lessons for a while with Ollie Johnson, “but not for a long time.” Helen finished high school at Lakeland and then spent one year at the McPhail College of Music in Minneapolis before deciding to marry Robert Townsend at about the age of 20.
After her marriage to Robert and settling back in the Northwoods, Helen said the offer to work at the church sort of came out of the blue.
“I was teaching piano lessons and talked to [officials] at the grade school about using school facilities and [they] said, ‘why don’t you ask at the church and see if you can use their facilities.’ So that’s what I did.”
It was in the spring of 1964 – May 17, in fact – that Helen started as the organist at the church.
One day while Helen was teaching piano at the church, Pastor Robert Anderson, who was at the church for nearly 30 years, approached her and asked if she might be interested in taking over as the church’s organist.
“One of our high school kids had been playing and she left for school so we needed a replacement,” Anderson said.
“I said I would give it a try,” Helen remembered.
As it turned out, it was more than a “try.” Fifty years later, Helen is as excited about going to “work” as she was that first day.
Two pastors, five single-year interns and four summer associates later, Helen continues playing each Sunday at the church, in addition to providing music for weddings and funerals not only at the Boulder Junction church, but at other churches across the Northwoods.
Her work is well known and loved by many ... and appreciated by all.
Above and beyond
Since beginning as the church’s organist back in 1964, Helen has gone through three organs.
The first, a Conn, had “a few keys that didn’t work, so I had to play around them,” Helen said.
“Plus I was in a cubbyhole and couldn’t see the congregation. All they gave me was a window to look through,” she said.
“And then we had a Baldwin [organ]. And now we have an Ahlborn-Galanti – an organ made by a German company.”
Like every musician, practice is important and Helen hasn’t been concerned about taking the time to devote to getting it right.
“We have choir practice every Wednesday evening – well, most every Wednesday night.”
Ben Westphal, the Lakeland Union High School choir director, selects the music each week for services and Helen works with the vocalists to make sure it’s right for Sunday.
But Helen has also gone above and beyond just playing the music.
Around 10 years ago she started a bell choir for which she coordinates the music.
Several years ago health issues caused Helen to lose her ability to sing – a talent that she believed was her true gift. “When I was in high school and they put those sayings in the yearbook about what people would be doing in 20 years, mine said that I would be singing in the opera. I loved to sing,” she said.
She was a member of the Pinetones for many years before the health issues forced her to stop singing.
“I really miss that ... I could belt it out, but not anymore. That was hard to deal with for a long time because I thought that was my gift.”
When she was faced with not being able to sing, that’s when she started focusing on establishing the bell choir at the church.
Having worked with Pastor Anderson and the church’s current pastor, Tim Hawkinson, has been a blessing that only Helen understands – and something that the pastors truly appreciate.
Asked if Helen had missed many days over the course of the past 50 years, Pastor Anderson said, “NO!”
And Pastor Hawkinson added emphatically, “literally.”
“I blaze a trail on some Sunday mornings,” Helen said in describing the harrows of navigating Northwoods roads during he winter.
“I went into the ditch once, remember? It was a Christmas morning. That was a long time ago. My kids were still home – had to be 40 years ago.”
But that will change for at least one Sunday this coming fall – “I have to say that ... they surprised me and gave me three tickets to a Packers game ... skybox.”
“Helen is an avid Packers fan ... avid, avid, avid,” Pastor Hawkinson said.
“It’s very difficult sometimes,” Pastor Hawkinson said. “We have to make Helen take time off. Her devotion to the music and to the congregation is right up there.”
Pastor Anderson added, “... and she would be in the hospital and insist on playing the Sunday she gets back.”
His description was spot on.
Helen said, “I had surgery on a Tuesday once and I was here playing on Sunday.”
Music comes alive through Helen
Through the years, there may have been power outages or there may have been some issues with the organ, “but we always managed,” Helen said.
Pastor Anderson said, “We have no worries here that if there is a power outage, she can’t slide over to the piano – and it has happened.”
But no matter if it’s the organ or the piano, Helen brings something special each week.
“Helen has a way of making and helping the worship service really become personal so people are invited ... she has a knack for bringing it together,” Pastor Hawkinson said.
“And that’s a gift.
“There are people who accompany and play notes, but Helen experiences worship. Since this church began, through its pastors ... worship is central to the life of our community and Helen is such an integral part of that. Very rarely can she come up for a cup of coffee because people are down there and wanting to be with her ... and that’s something special.”
He went on to describe Helen’s impact on the congregation: “She is such a wonderful part and we rely on her. The conversations we have and how she invites the congregation into the music ... when you have someone who’s been with a church so long that oftentimes their hands become thumbs and you don’t know how to say, ‘it’s time to move on.’ That’s never been an issue with Helen. She gets better. She is who she is and is a delight.”
As for the music, there isn’t much that Helen doesn’t like. When asked about her favorite music, she admits that she loves big band. But as for the church music she’s been playing for the past 50 years, Helen takes a step back into tradition.
“You know, I get the most compliments from the congregation when I play the old hymns. Everybody loves to hear the old hymns that they were brought up on. I do like big band music, but as for church music, well I do like some of the old church classics. I just like the old familiar hymns people like to listen to.”
And as for Pastor Anderson, as a man proud of his Swedish ancestry, he said that Helen has always known when it was time to play the old Swedish hymns that are so well-loved.
But overall, her love of music could be described as “eclectic.”
“And even the ones the kids know, like ‘Jesus Loves me’ ... I’ll play that sometimes, too,” Helen said.
But it’s her understanding of tradition and those in the congregation that has allowed Helen to continue with her mission to use music to lift the spirit of all every Sunday.
“The songs we sing, the music we play is deeply rooted in the traditions and multiple traditions ...,” Pastor Hawkinson said.
“But I let it rip every once in a while,” Helen added. “And she has fun,” Pastor Hawkinson added.
“And the congregation likes it, too,” Helen said.
That said, Pastor Hawkinson said the music is never the same. “She never treats it as old hat,” Pastor Anderson said. “It’s always fresh ... we can get stodgy ... that’s never been the case around the piano and organ.”
There are reasons for that. Helen best described those reasons: “This congregation and this church mean so much to me. I’ve been approached by other churches to come play for them ... I have played for the church in Manitowish Waters ... and I still fill in over there for weddings and funerals ... and I’ve played at [other churches around the Lakeland area].”
But the Community Church of Boulder Junction has been her “home,” and sanctuary.
Fifty years doing the same thing would, for most, be an eternity. But for Helen, her life’s work at the church could easily extend another 50.
And that’s why she said she would never retire.
“I’m happy with what I’ve chosen to do for my life. I have no regrets. It’s been something that I love. Not everybody can say that.”
Raymond T. Rivard may be reached at email@example.com