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Focus on Faith: For church organist Joan Nikolski, music and family are passions

Sunday, July 21, 2013
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Joan Nikolski, a church organist for 67 years who will be retiring from St.Paul the Apostle in Schenectady later this summer, practices at her home recently. (Bill Buell/Gazette reporter)
Joan Nikolski, a church organist for 67 years who will be retiring from St.Paul the Apostle in Schenectady later this summer, practices at her home recently. (Bill Buell/Gazette reporter)

When Joan Nikolski’s older sister Rita was told she had to take piano lessons, both girls were very upset by their parents’ decision. Fortunately, however, they were disappointed in different ways.

“My sister hated taking piano lessons, and finally she said to our mother, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing; why don’t you let Joan take the lessons,’ ” said Nikolski, who has been the church organist at St. Paul the Apostle on Van Zandt Street in Schenectady for 34 years.

“She felt like a fish out of water at the piano, and I loved it. I would always ask her when she came home from a lesson, ‘What did you learn today?’ ”

To keep peace in the house, mom and dad relented and let 13-year-old Rita out of her musical gig and got 9-year-old Joan started on what became a lifelong passion.

“I started out taking lessons with Mrs. Saxe on Hague Avenue, and then went to James Early, who was the church organist at St. John the Evangelist,” said Nikolski, whose maiden name was Bissonette.

Filling a need

“When I was 12, my mother came home from St. Paul and told me they needed an organist. I said, ‘Mom, I play the piano,’ and she said, ‘If you can play the piano you can play the organ.’ ”

That was a little more than 67 years ago. Nikolski got her start at St. Paul, moved to Immaculate Conception in Bellevue for a while and then went to the new St. Paul’s in 1979.

“I’ve played at other churches, too, some Protestant churches, but I think I’ve probably played in every Catholic church in Schenectady,” she said.

Her long tenure as a church organist will come to an end on Aug. 31 as she approaches her 80th birthday. Music was always important to her, and when she married Donald Nikolski in 1952, it became an even bigger part of her life. Naturally, she shared that love with her children.

“Music was our whole world,” said her son Bernie Nikolski, who was one of four boys to come along after his parents already had six girls. “It was never if we wanted to play, it was always what instrument would we play. But she never pushed us. It wasn’t like we had to do it. It was just part of our culture, part of our upbringing.”

Well-known band

The Don Nikolski Orchestra was one of the Capital Region’s most popular bands in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“My husband worked a full-time job Monday through Friday, and then he would play Friday night and the whole weekend,” said Nikolski, who also ran a diner on Broadway with her husband back in the 1960s.

“I met him at music class when he was a bassoon player for the Mont Pleasant band. He had to work to pay for all the instruments we had, and he had a great working relationship with Hermie’s Music Store. When my husband died I had two saxophones, two clarinets, two accordions. Of course, I still have my piano.”

While she’s proud of her ability at the keyboard, Nikolski says she doesn’t consider herself a great organist.

“I am not a trained professional or an accomplished organist,” said Nikolski, who also worked at the General Electric Co. and the Northeast Parent and Child Society for a time.

“I wanted to be a concert pianist when I was growing up, but I got married and had 10 children. I’m very adequate and dependable for the Catholic church. I know the Mass, and it’s been great fun playing at churches and other events, but I just feel like it’s time. I love it, but it’s time.”

Nikolski occasionally played with her husband, sometimes at the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon in Albany, and she also would sit in with the St. Clare’s Choraleers.

Family gatherings

While the family did play as a group on some occasions long ago, those sessions are usually restricted to the Christmas season these days when Nikolski and her 10 children, 18 grandchildren and 7 great-grandchildren get together. As was the case long ago, a full house is never an issue for his mother, according to Bernie Nikolski.

“We had a large family, and we always had aunts and uncles and grandparents coming over to the house,” he said. “My mom always liked having people around. She’s always very open and friendly with people, and she still is.”

Parish council president Lou Grasso said finding a successor to fill Nikolski’s shoes won’t be easy.

“She is a very dedicated person, and music certainly runs in her family,” said Grasso. “She lives right in our neighborhood, but she also had a large family, took care of them, and still did all of this wonderful organ playing for our church. We’re going to miss her a lot. She’s the kind of person that’s very hard to replace.”

next generation

All of the Nikolski children love music, and six of the 10 have played professionally. As for her grandchildren, Nikolski is working on them.

“I have two granddaughters who play very well,” she said. “I’m working on the other ones, but they seem to like sports right now. I’ve told them, ‘Well, you can’t play football or baseball when you’re 60 or 70 years old.’ Music is wonderful. Our story is that of a musical family. I can’t imagine my life without music.”

Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or bbuell@dailygazette.com.

 
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