When Robert Heidenreich took the job in 1962 as organist at St. Peter Parish in Fort Wayne, he felt right at home. He still feels that way today.
On Sunday, Feb. 27, Heidenreich will be at the organ keyboard for the 9:15 a.m. Mass as he marks his 60th anniversary of playing the instrument at St. Peter. He also will play at the 4 p.m. Vigil Mass on Saturday, Feb. 26.
“I’ve been very happy all these years,” the Fort Wayne native said.
Heidenreich, 86, said he came from a musical family and always loved music. He enjoyed the organ music at Mass while growing up in the former St. Hyacinth Parish in Fort Wayne.
He didn’t think about playing the organ until the day his fourth-grade teacher at St. Hyacinth School took her students up to the church choir loft to see the parish’s small organ.
He waited until his high school years to pursue that interest, starting with piano lessons because they were less expensive than organ lessons. He didn’t enjoy them and soon moved on to what he really wanted to learn.
“I took to organ right away,” Heidenreich recalled.
At the time, a number of musicians taught organ in Fort Wayne. He studied with the late Louis Peil, who then was the organist at St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne. He later took lessons from the late Neil Thompson, a longtime organist at St. Patrick Parish in Fort Wayne.
In 1955, Heidenreich landed his first organ job playing at weekday Masses five days a week at St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne. At the time, the parish worshipped in the old church that later became the home of the parish Boy Scout troop’s Haunted Castle at Halloween time, he said. He later added two Masses on Sundays at Precious Blood Parish in Fort Wayne to his schedule.
When the organist at St. Peter quit, the parish offered Heidenreich the full-time job. He started on Feb. 27, 1962. On his first day, 25 boys climbed the narrow, spiral staircase to the choir loft to sing as a choir at Mass. They were as surprised to see him as he was to see them, he said.
In the early years, Heidenreich played the organ for Masses at 6 a.m., 6:45 a.m. and 8 a.m. on weekdays and at three Masses on Sunday mornings. He also played for weddings and funerals and led the parish’s choirs. He taught music to children at St. Peter’s School until it closed in 1972.
Heidenreich also helped at other parishes and locations around town. From 1990 to 2004, for example, he played organ at the Latin Masses celebrated at Sacred Heart Parish in Fort Wayne. He also used to play at other parishes on a limited basis and for funerals held in the chapel at the St. Anne Communities senior living and care facility in Fort Wayne.
Though Heidenreich retired in 1992 after 30 years at St. Peter, he quickly decided he didn’t want to give up playing the organ and returned to St. Peter part time, receiving the title organist emeritus. The renovated Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ at St. Peter is one of the best organs in the city, he said.
Currently, his arrangement with St. Peter Music Director Allen Goebbert has Heidenreich playing one weekend a month for St. Peter’s Masses at 4 p.m. Saturday and 9:15 a.m. Sunday. Heidenreich also plays organ during funeral Masses at the church.
He is great to work with, said Kathryn Imler, St. Peter’s liturgical music coordinator and a cantor. Because Heidenreich plays by ear rather than by reading notes, he can find where a cantor is if she or he gets off on a wrong note and can adjust the music accordingly.
“He will find where you are and fill in,” said Imler, who has worked with Heidenreich for 30 years.
Heidenreich also adjusted easily to the musical preferences of the various priests who have served at St. Peter during his time as organist, Imler said.
“That’s a tribute to his talent and personality to go through so many cycles of priests,” she said.
Heidenreich said his faith flows out in his music. He also attends Mass daily and serves as a sacristan to help prepare the church and altar area for Mass.
The parish has become like a family for him, Imler said.
Heidenreich knows he’ll have to give up playing at St. Peter at some point. He no longer bounds up the 38 steps to the choir loft two at a time, but he still climbs them quickly. He hopes he can keep playing a while longer.
“It has been a big part of my life,” he said, “and I will miss it when I stop.”
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