Like father, like son: Organists fill churches with music
ROARING BROOK TOWNSHIP, Pa. (AP) — Like father, like son.
With a century of combined musical experience under their belts, Carl Coates, 83, and son Scott Coates, 48, have spent most of their Sunday mornings playing organs in local churches. There is no place either would rather be, particularly on Easter Sunday, the holiest day of the year for Christians, than seated at an organ, leading congregants in worship with music and hymns.
(On Easter Sunday, Scott Coates was to lead St. Eulalia Parish in music at the church on Blue Shutters Road in Roaring Brook Twp. Carl Coates was to play organ about 30 miles away at Dorranceton United Methodist Church on Wyoming Avenue in Kingston, Luzerne County.)
A West Pittston resident and Wyoming Valley West Middle School choral teacher, Scott Coates said he believes his musical talent is a gift from God.
“I’m doing it because I was given this ability to play and I enjoy it,” he said. “One of the best feelings for me to see the hymn books open and see the people singing, and to hear the church filled with people singing.”
His father agreed and said he has been fortunate to have had a lifetime of performing for others
“It’s a job you really like doing,” Carl Coates said. “There are not too many like that. Even if it’s just a hobby for me, I love it.”
Each started on keyboards as young boys.
A Plymouth resident, Carl Coates began playing piano at about age 10, at Valley View Union Chapel on his family’s former dairy farm property in Larksville, where he grew up.
At 19, he became the organist at Huntsville Methodist Church in Shavertown, where he remains a congregant. He later took a job at Plymouth United Methodist Church, before landing at Forty Fort United Presbyterian Church, where he stayed for 30 years.
He tried retiring from playing organ in church, but could not stay away when an opening arose at Dorranceton United Methodist Church, where he has been the organist for the past 11 years.
The elder Coates also performed nondenominational services for many years at State Correctional Institution at Chase, after it opened several decades ago. A chaplain asked if he would help out at the prison. Coates started his Sunday mornings at the prison for services with inmates at 6 a.m., and afterward went to Forty Fort United Presbyterian Church to play during the Sunday services there.
“We never saw him on Sunday mornings,” his son joked. “I just thought that was normal. He’d leave in a suit in the morning and come back about noon. That was where dad was. He was in church every Sunday.”
Carl Coates never pushed his son to play keyboards. However, Scott Coates absorbed music from his dad and took to playing on his own, at about age 6 or 7. With a piano and organ in their home, he started on organ. The elder Coates saw potential in his son, who soon started taking organ lessons from instructor Ed Loch in Wilkes-Barre.
The first time Scott Coates played organ in church, at about age 12 or 13, was during an organ lesson, when Loch took him to the former St. Patrick’s in Wilkes-Barre, where Loch was the organist.
“He took me to his Mass, left me in the choir loft and said, ‘Here, play this,’ and went down for Communion,” Coates recalled. “I played for Communion and he waved at me from downstairs. I got through it all right.”
Loch suggested he should take piano lessons, and Coates did.
When Coates was about 13, a youth minister from the former Church of St. Vincent De Paul in Plymouth, Sister Rosemary Green, went door-to-door enlisting children in a youth or folk group. He was outside playing when his father called him into the house.
“I thought, ‘What did I do, I’m going to hell, there’s a nun in my house,’” Coates recalled with a laugh.
He joined the folk group as pianist. At about 17, he became St. Vincent’s music director, a post he would hold for many years. As a piano major in college, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Wilkes University in 1992.
After more than three decades at St. Vincent’s and its merged successor, All Saints Parish, he decided to step away at the end of 2015, figuring it was time to take a break and spend more time with his family. He and his wife, Jo Ann, have two children, Nathan, 12, and Carlee, 6.
Coates then went to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Swoyersville and became music minister of the Sunday 5:30 p.m. liturgy, a post he still holds.
Easter 2016 was the first Easter Sunday morning in decades that he was not playing organ in a church and he felt a huge void.
The priest at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, the Rev. Joseph Pisaneschi, could see how much the younger Coates missed playing organ on Sundays and made some inquiries in the Catholic Diocese of Scranton. Soon, St. Eulalia Parish in Roaring Brook called. Coates never heard of that church and never traveled to that part of Lackawanna County, east of Scranton. He became St. Eulalia’s music minister in August 2016 and loves it.
“I missed it,” he said of not being a church organist on Sundays. “Sunday morning to get up and not be in church, to not have that commitment, I couldn’t do it. I had to go back.”
During a recent St. Eulalia choir rehearsal, Coates and 15 choir members packed into a cramped balcony to practice songs for Palm Sunday. Seated at an electric organ, Coates led the group, stopping at times to give direction or make a suggestion. Some members played guitar, cello and trumpet.
Pati Pawlik, of Covington Twp., a St. Eulalia parishioner for 27 years and member of the choir for a decade, said Coates makes choir participation fun.
“He brings a levity to singing,” said Pawlik, 55, a registered nurse who notes that she is not a trained singer. “I just came to this later in life. He’s made it a very comfortable fit. ... We have a joyous time. They say, ‘make a joyous noise.’ We make a joyous noise.”
Music for an Easter service tends to be exuberant, rejoicing in the “He is risen” belief in resurrection of Jesus Christ, Coates said. Selections are scripture-based, with input by a liturgy committee and, of course, a church’s pastor.
Carl Coates said he is glad his son followed his footsteps as a church organist, and notes they differ in style. His son has a more strident approach on organ, but a more emotive touch on piano.
“He gets right into it (on organ) and I’m more laid back and reserved,” the elder Coates said. “But on piano, he can make the piano talk because he puts so much more into it than I do. I play the way it’s written, but he puts runs into it and all that other stuff.”
Coates and his wife of nearly 53 years, Rosemary, also have a daughter, Caryn Williams of Collegeville, and two other grandchildren, Alexander and Gabriella Williams. The couple is retired from Acme Markets and C&C Cleaning, a business they owned for 30 years.
Father and son plan to continue as church organists for as long as they can.
Though his fingers are not as nimble as they used to be, Carl Coates said he still fills with joy when playing organ in church.
“I just enjoy doing it,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t play organ on Sunday. I’d just be lost.”
Information from: The Times-Tribune, http://thetimes-tribune.com/