Castle Hill home to world’s longest playing parish organist

By Jordan Grantham, 4 September 2017
Fred Hawkins at the organ of St Bernadette's Parish, Castle Hill. He has played for Sunday Mass for over 80 years. Photo: Jordan Grantham/Diocese of Parramatta

A lifetime of service has kept Fred Hawkins of Castle Hill young at heart and beloved by his community. And, it may even have given him claim to being the world’s longest serving parish organist.

Fred first played organ for Mass when eight years old at St Felix de Valois Parish, Bankstown in 1937. Over 80 years later, he is still going strong, trilling along the keys and foot pedals at Mass each weekend.

Fred is cautious about Catholic Outlook’s claim that he is the world’s longest serving parish organist.* His focus is helping people gain fulfillment from their Mass attendance. He sees even greater value in them learning to do it for their fellow parishioners.

The 1996 visit of Pope St John Paul II was a highlight of his musical career, where Fred collaborated with the late, great, Christian Brother Colin Smith to produce the music and train the volunteer choristers.

Fred has an amazing family history woven into Australia’s Catholic heritage. His master stonemason father was head-hunted from England to build the rose window at St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, at the age of 30 years.

“He came out to do that job,” Fred said. “The war broke out . . . he had to go back.”

After World War I, Fred’s father returned to complete the rose window and settled in Australia. One year after the opening of St Mary’s Cathedral, Fred was born in 1929. Seven years later, Fred’s father tragically died following an industrial injury, but not before the window was finished and the gargoyles were mounted.

The fatherless family moved to Bankstown parish and Sr Mary Emerentia of the Sisters of St Joseph took young Fred under her wing, teaching him piano and the basics of playing organ. Fred played his first Mass there at St Felix of Valois Parish around the time of his eighth birthday in May 1937.

Fred was invited to play for visiting pianist Arthur Rubinstein who selected a Steinway piano for him and initiated crowd funding to pay for it. Fred’s mother asked Bankstown’s Parish Priest, Rev Dr Eris O’Brien, for support and he became Fred’s guardian.

Rev Dr O’Brien was a noted Catholic historian who went on to become Auxiliary Bishop of Sydney, Auxiliary Archbishop of Sydney, Archbishop of Canberra-Goulburn and collaborator with H.V. Evatt for the preparation and drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Fred went on to study at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and became Assistant Accompanist for Radio 2SM, where he met his late wife, Valerie McNally, a talented violinist and chorister, who shared his involvement in liturgical music for most of their lives together.

He studied Electrical Engineering at University of NSW, and worked for Stromberg-Carlson and Admiral before joining IBM Australia for the last 31 years of his working life. During this time, Val and Fred were blessed with three lovely daughters.

Fred was there to witness the changing nature of Australian Catholicism.  He remembers the days of sodalities – Holy Name Society for the boys and men, the Sacred Heart sodality for the ladies and the Holy Angels for the younger girls leading up to membership of the Children of Mary for girls of marriageable age.

“The sodalities were big. I just don’t know why they disappeared. It was quick,” he said.

The transition to people attending Mass as a family occurred whilst Fred was at St Brigid’s Parish, Marrickville where he learned under Passionist Father Stanislaus Cross, the foremost liturgist of the 1940s and Connie Cloran, a legendary organist.

There was an impressive musical program and tradition at Marrickville, with Latin choral sung Masses by composers such as Palestrina and Vittoria, Refice and Hassler. A museum in the bell tower at Marrickville records Fr. Cross’ inspiring contribution to Liturgy in Sydney.

As Fred and Valerie moved for family and work reasons, they continued their musical apostolate. In Panania and Peakhurst Parishes, Fred saw church life and music change significantly in the post-Vatican II decades.  The use of English in the Liturgy came with the 4-hymn sandwich followed quickly by Folk Masses, beginning with the ever inspiring Peter Kearney and a changing musical emphasis as contemporary songs were introduced. Eventually congregations were encouraged to sing.

Soon people sang the Ordinary using newly written Mass settings such as Mass Shalom by Br Colin Smith and a multitude of new styles such as the James McAuley/Richard Connolly hymns and the adoption of good liturgical music mainly from the USA.

Fred has always had a strong focus on music for parish Masses and in recent years has composed much music for the Liturgy trying to fill the gap. He is working on a “sorely-needed complete set of Responsorial Psalms and Gospel Acclamations that presents the verbatim text of our Lectionary,” he said.

Fred emphasises the benefits of volunteering, especially in the area of music.

“There are parishes without organists and some struggle to find psalmists and cantors for weekend Masses. As a result, the full beauty and benefits of weekend Masses are not realised,” Fred said.

“A large parish would need about five volunteer organists and perhaps 60 singers, to cover a full weekend of Masses with small singing groups. Training for singers is available and anyone with piano experience can quickly learn the basics of accompanying Mass on the organ.”

Perhaps you too could consider becoming a part of it? Fred sees it as a very rewarding ministry that is a vital part of our worship.


*Believed to be true based on available research on 31 July 2017. The current Guinness World Record for longest tenure as a Church organist/pianist was set in early 2016 by nonagenarian Alice Gurney Eitle of the Union Pisgah United Methodist Church, Ohio. Unsuccessful attempts were made to contact Alice. Regardless, a Catholic parish is different to a protestant church organisation, hence this article’s claim regarding “longest playing parish organist”.


Read Daily
* indicates required