After 56 years as a church organist, cantor and choir director in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, Ellen “Nan” Welsh has played the organ at St. Patrick Parish, Elkhorn, for the last time.
For months, pain and numbness in her hands left playing the piano and organ difficult, so, a few months ago, Welsh, 82, had surgery to correct carpal tunnel syndrome.
“I just decided it was a good time to call it quits,” she said. “My hands aren’t the best even with the surgery and with my age, it was time.”
For decades, Welsh filled St. Patrick and many churches throughout the diocese with traditional Catholic music as well as music from contemporary liturgical composers. Her singing and desire to worship through song tells of her passion for sacred music and the church she loves.
“I did this for the Lord,” she said. “I didn’t do it for me or for anyone else. I wasn’t that trained and often felt like I was a fraud because I hadn’t had formal training. I was more of an accompanist and really liked leading the congregation. I remember one time when (Archbishop emeritus) Rembert (Weakland) came down to Twin Lakes where I was playing and was amazed at how the congregation sang. I try to play with feeling and know how the people sing and try to play that way.”
Her love of music was scripted almost before she can remember. Her father was a composer and pianist who once wrote and published a song for Marquette University.
“My dad could sit down and play anything if you hummed him a tune,” she said. “I learned to read music and play by ear from him. But I never had any formal training, I just decided to teach myself how to play and learned to play piano and all types of organs, even the large pipe organs.”
Welsh was baptized at St. Patrick Parish and has been a lifelong member. A daily Mass attendee, she recalled bringing her three boys, Steve, Randy and Gary with her each day and figured that since she was already there, she might as well assist with the music.
“At first it was something for me to do,” she said. “And later, I needed the money – although, in the beginning my pay was a cake at Christmas time. Later though, I began to earn a salary for what I did. Playing in church was a good fit for me, I figured that since I was there everyday, I might as well play.”
While she began at St. Patrick Parish, her career as liturgical musician spanned the archdiocese. She has also played at St. Peter, East Troy; St. Patrick, Whitewater; St. John the Evangelist, Twin Lakes; St. Francis de Sales, Lake Geneva; St. Benedict, Fontana and St. Frances Cabrini, West Bend to name a few.
On many weekends, Welsh played for the early Mass at St. Patrick and then drove to Milwaukee for another Mass. On some occasions, when the timing was a bit too tight for a drive, she would fly.
“One of my sons is a pilot and after I played a wedding at St. Patrick or a later Mass, he would fly me to Hartford to play for the Mass up there,” she said. “I really enjoyed flying and being able to play around so much.”
Welsh garnered close friendships with and deep respect from many priests and religious sisters in the archdiocese for her dedication and willingness to learn all aspects of preparing liturgy.
“I think preparing liturgy is what I will miss the most,” she said. “I really learned a lot from the priests, sisters, transitional deacons and Capuchins,” she said. “I have so many great memories of cooking for them, spending time with them and just learning all that I could.”
Welsh played for many weddings and funerals over the years. She said that funerals were often easier than dealing with a few overzealous mothers of the brides.
“Some of those mothers were not easy to get along with,” she said, adding, “But with funerals, there is no one to argue with.”
Because much of her playing was done before most parishes had air-conditioning, Welsh often left smelling salts on the top of the organ or piano in case a lector, bride or groom felt a bit faint.
“One day, it was almost me that fainted,” she said. “I am deathly afraid of spiders and there was this guy lectoring next to me while I was playing on the Cabrini organ in front of the church. There was this spider crawling across the top of the organ and I was really nervous so I whispered it to him while he was up there. As soon as he was done reading, he came over to the organ and wacked the spider very loudly right during Mass. Those were some good times.”
Welsh plans to take more time traveling, golfing, reading and spoiling her five grandchildren and one great-granddaughter, Ellen.
“She was named after me, and that was quite a thrill when they did that,” she said.