She takes the 21 steps up the narrow staircase to the balcony of Canoga Park Lutheran Church to perform one final song on the pipe organ she’s played almost every Sunday since the church opened in 1960.
Christine Benich is 97 years old, but you’d never know it trying to keep up with her going up those stairs. She moves like a rock star on her way to receiving a Grammy a long time in the coming. Best body of work by a church pipe organist in the last six decades.
She sits at her organ bench, takes off her street shoes and lines them up neatly on a nearby shelf before lacing up her special organ shoes with leather soles and higher heels for better traction working the pedals.
Normally, she would arrange her sheet music on the stand in front of her, but there is none to be arranged anymore because Benich is going blind and can no longer read the notes.
Even extra lighting and the thick books she sat on last year to get closer to see her sheet music can’t help anymore. Her mind is sharp, her body still strong, her faith rock solid, but her eyes …
“You ask yourself why, but you know your time is going to come and this is it for me,” she said. “It’s not easy. I realize I can’t come here anymore and play, can’t put a book in front of me, and read music. I’m sad.”
Her last performance was on Christmas Day when she relied on memory to play a powerful, moving rendition of “God, Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman,” which she repeated for me last Tuesday when we met in the empty church to turn back the years on her remarkable life.
“When my parents came to this country from Hungary during the Great Depression they brought a piece of their culture with them — music,” she said. “It was a gift they gave to me.”
Times were hard and her parents saved what little they could to give their daughter piano lessons that came cheap from teachers just trying to make ends meet themselves.
“When I was 12, my piano teacher found me jobs playing for women’s club’s and community affairs,” Christine said. “The money I made paid for my lessons with him.”
She took her gift as a young woman to the Chicago Conservatory of Music studying to be a classical pianist, but life took a sharp turn, and she became an executive secretary after she married to help pay the bills — “putting my music to rest for many years,” she said.
The weather was cold in Chicago and both their parents moved west to Southern California for the warmer climate, and in 1955 Christine and her husband followed, moving to Woodland Hills.
They joined a small Lutheran church in Canoga Park with services held in an old parish hall surrounded by orange groves. Christine invited the pastor of the church to dinner one night, and he noticed the piano in their living room.
“Do you play?” he asked her. “We need musicians desperately in our church. We have a little organ with six pedals. It’s not much, but would you play it at our services?”
And, that’s how it began. That little organ soon became a big pipe organ when the new church was built, and Christine soon was doubling as director of the school choir and putting on programs for the growing congregation.
“You never know where your music is going to lead,” she said. “Never.”
Before her eyesight began to fail, she would look down from the balcony to a congregation that had gone from a high of almost 800 members in 1993 and a school with more than 200 students in it to a congregation of 180 members and no school.
The children and grandchildren of their parishioners were joining modern, independent churches with contemporary music and big entertainment productions. They weren’t interested in praying with a pipe organ for accompaniment.
“You look around the Valley today and there are almost no churches with pipe organs,” she said. “It’s sad because they’re part of our culture and should be kept alive.”
With that said, Christine Belich closed her eyes and played an incredible “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentleman” from memory — letting every pipe in her organ rise to its fullest, loudest potential and fill the empty Canoga Park Lutheran Church with such powerful, moving sounds they took your breath away.
At 97-years-old and nearly blind, she played her pipe organ like a rock star on her way to a Grammy.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at email@example.com.