Ever since his grade school years as an altar server at St. Therese Parish, Milwaukee, Jim Pluer knew he wanted to serve the church.   Jim Pluer recently retired after a 50-year career as director of music and liturgy at 12 archdiocesan parishes. (Submitted photo courtesy Mark Was)

At first, Pluer thought this might mean a vocation to the priesthood. He studied at the Pallotine seminary in Madison and then at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary in St. Francis.

When he eventually realized he was called to marriage, he understood that God wanted him to serve in a different way – as a liturgical musician.  

Pluer had been playing piano since second grade and organ since sixth grade, and had always had a deep love for sacred music.

“I thought it was a call from God to use my talents,” Pluer said.

Pluer recently retired from a lifetime of service through music. He has worked as the director of music and liturgy at 12 parishes over the course of his 50-year career, including St. Joseph, Waukesha; St. Sebastian, Milwaukee; and, most recently, St. Jude the Apostle, Wauwatosa.

Fr. Charlie Conley, pastor at St. Jude, knew Pluer when they were students together at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary and later at Alverno College, where they both received musical training. Fr. Conley spoke glowingly of his collaboration with Pluer and of Pluer’s musical gifts.

“Jim is one of the finest musicians I’ve ever been blessed to work with in my life,” Fr. Conley said. “In the liturgy, the close collaboration between the presider and the liturgical musician is critical for drawing from the assembly their sustained participation. Jim’s pastoral understanding of the liturgy, the rhythm and flow of good ritual, combined with his musical expertise is something not easily found among musicians these days.”

According to Fr. Conley, Pluer has a special ability to lead and inspire the assembly to enthusiastic participation in the music of the liturgy.  

“Jim is an exceptionally gifted improviser and with this ability has a particular skill for leading the assembly in song. He brought the active participation of our worshipping assembly to new heights,” said Fr. Conley.

In talking about his approach as a liturgical music director, Pluer also emphasized the importance of encouraging participation.

“My driving force was to have the assembly participate fully in the liturgy,” Pluer said. “Music is intrinsic and integral to the liturgy, and they are the main instrument.”

In addition to his parish work, Pluer was involved in a number of major archdiocesan events, including the episcopal ordinations of Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland and Bishop Richard J. Sklba.

He was also given the opportunity to play as a substitute organist at the legendary Church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, France. This invitation came after the titular organist for Saint-Sulpice visited St. Jude to inaugurate the church’s new organ.

Long and irregular hours were challenges that came with his job, according to Pluer.
It was sometimes difficult to coordinate his schedule, which included most weekends and many evenings, while raising his six children with wife, JoAnne.

Pluer noted that most aspects of the job of a director of music and liturgy are unseen by parishioners. While most thought of him as “the organist,” his responsibilities also included coordinating every aspect of the liturgical life of the parish, including planning weddings and funerals, training lay ministers, leading the choirs, preparing orders of worship, attending pastoral staff meetings, and decorating the church.

Another challenge Pluer encountered over his five-decade ministry was division among parishioners over liturgical styles. He emphasized the importance of being willing to sacrifice one’s own preferences.  

“You have to die to yourself,” Pluer said.  

His goal was always to integrate a diversity of styles into a unified liturgy. 

“The whole liturgy must work together as a seamless garment – it should all serve God and praise God,” 

Pluer is now enjoying the freedom of retired life and the extra time with his wife, children and six grandchildren (and one on the way.)

“I miss playing music,” he admitted, “but I don’t miss organizing and scheduling!”  

He said he will likely start playing occasionally as a substitute organist once he has taken some time to settle into retirement.

Pluer is missed at St. Jude as well. Fr. Conley remembers when the parish was preparing for Pluer’s departure.

“On various Sundays, after a rousing rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Ode to Joy,’ parishioners would comment to me, ‘How are we going to replace that when Jim retires?!’” Fr. Conley said.

“Jim did ever so much to elevate the beauty and the quality of our worship, lifting us to experience the transcendent through music.”