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LIFE STORIES: Music leads choir director back to church

Lifelong musician and soon-to-retire First Christian Church Choir Director at Mary Ellen Stiegemeier poses for a photo at her piano last week. Stiegemeier said that music has guided her in life, first as a music educator then religiously as a choral director. | H-W Photo/Jake Shane
Jake Shane1|
By Herald-Whig
Posted: Aug. 7, 2017 2:15 pm

QUINCY -- Music led Mary Ellen Stiegemeier back to the church and helped her find herself after 30 years away.

A native Iowan, Stiegemeier went to Parsons College, a small Presbyterian school in Fairfield, Iowa, in the 1960s, receiving her bachelor's degree in music education and later received a master's degree from the University of Iowa. Music was a natural fit, and her parents, having struggled through the Great Depression, supported her creative endeavors.

"We had an upright piano. My mother had a piano bench full of music from the '20s and before, which she played," Stiegemeier said. "We all sat around the piano, and we sang. My father had a ukelele and a harmonica."

Neither of her parents had studied music. The family sang popular folk songs. When she told them of her intentions to study music, they agreed it suited her personality well.

She came to Quincy in the late 1960s for an interview with the Quincy School District, and the massive old homes on Maine Street sold her on it. She quickly found that, as a music teacher, she was in the unique position to reach every child that passed through the school system.

"When you walk into the room as a music teacher, all the kids are sitting there," she said. "They're all going to be doing something together, at the same time, with varying degrees of skill and attitude."

Not all students could be reached, but it was the success stories that propelled her through the years and helped her finish her career with QPS.

"I went into a kindergarten class one time, and we were all sitting on the floor singing," she said. "When we were done, this one little girl got up and started skipping around the room and singing. Something told me not to tell her to sit down. When class was over, the teacher told me that little girl had never said a word."

She was once tasked with teaching a class of deaf students.

"It was really difficult," she said. "I'm not sure if I made a difference, but their teachers made me feel as if I was. I only know the students were glad when music time came."

As the school year drew to a close, that class made her a sweatshirt with each student's handprint on it, a token she cherished until it faded away.

"I wish I could say that every kid was wildly enthusiastic when I came into the room, but I don't suppose that's true," she said. "I think most of them were, though."

Her career also led her to encounter an intelligent German teacher, Alan, whom she would marry.

"He wasn't like anybody else I'd ever met," she said. "His interests were not those of an average person. He was interested in music, but he was also interested in antiques."

As the relationship blossomed, Stiegemeier found herself drawn to Alan's hobbies and began to forego the religious lifestyle that she had known in her youth.

"We eventually married, and my life took a different turn," she said.

Stiegemeier slowly, and without realizing it, stopped going to church entirely, favoring instead attending auctions with her husband, who has run Old Town Antiques for more than three decades.

"I just sort of dropped out, gradually," she said. "You can have anything you want to in life, but you can't have everything. Some things you have to sacrifice."

Both retired in the early 1990s, and Stiegemeier recognized a void she had been overlooking.

"One day, somebody came that I knew from Symphony Chorus," she said. "This gal said they needed a choir director at First Christian Church. I said, ‘I don't do churches.' "

After some coercion, she hesitantly agreed to take the position.

"I discovered I really liked it," she said. "I started taking on more positions in the church that most choir directors don't do."

Twenty-three years have passed since she found her way back to the church.

"Going back did a lot," she said. "It put me back in touch with part of the kind of person I used to be that I was losing track of. When I walked into the church, I felt at home."

Stiegemeier recently decided it was time to step down as First Christian Church's choir director. The church will hold worship in her honor at 10:30 a.m. on Aug. 20, and an open house reception will follow from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

"Part of me is ready to let it go, and part of me isn't," she said. "I will really miss it, but it will be a relief to turn it over to somebody else."