Organist of 50 years hopes music inspires devotion

Mary Rosenberg sits at the organ at St. Paul Church in Burlington.

By Celine Klosterman

BURLINGTON — Mary Rosenberg’s earliest memory is of sitting in St. Mary Church in West Burlington, listening to parish organist Mary Esther Stodt and thinking, “I want to play like that; I want to make those beautiful sounds.”

For 50 years, she has worked to do so. This year marks her fifth decade of playing the organ for Catholic churches in West Burlington and Burlington, a ministry she first aspired to as an elementary student.

“When I turned 10, I pleaded with my mother to teach me to play the piano,” said Rosenberg, 69, a member of Ss. John & Paul Parish in Burlington. So on most days, her mother, Evelyn Kuntz, sat down with Rosenberg at the keyboard while giving a bottle to Rosenberg’s baby brother, Ken Kuntz — who’s now pastor of St. Mary Parish in Iowa City. “I’d practice for a couple hours and ask for another lesson tomorrow,” Rosenberg said.

In a year, the child finished five lesson books. Her mother took her to Sister Mary Grace Dunlavy, RSM, who taught piano and organ lessons at St. Mary’s. Rosenberg played one piece for Sr. Dunlavy, who proclaimed she’d start giving the child organ lessons the next day. “I thought my heart would burst with joy!” Rosenberg said.


Three weeks later, she played her first hymn during a Sunday Mass. At 11, she began playing through the entire liturgy. At the request of her pastor, Father Mel Morrin, she provided accompaniment for some funerals, too.

“She seemed quite accomplished from my earliest memories,” Fr. Kuntz said, noting his older sister also accompanied family members when they sang at home.  

“Practicing was never a drudgery for me,” Rosenberg said. She would run through pieces for an hour after St. Mary School let out for the day, while waiting for her father, John Kuntz, to drive in from his farm to pick her up.

She continued playing for Masses throughout high school and while studying to become a nurse. After she married Keith Rosenberg in 1962, the couple moved to Georgia where he was stationed in the Army. They later returned to Iowa and bought a house in Burlington. Mary Rosenberg then had the first three of her four children in three years, leaving her with little time for the organ. 

An invitation in 1970 brought her back to the instrument. St. Paul Parish in Burlington needed an organist, and Rosenberg agreed to fill in. “Thus began my 40 years there,” she said.    

St. Paul Parish merged with St. John the Baptist Parish in Burlington in 1998, but Rosenberg continued playing at St. Paul Church. Over the years, she’s played in more than 40 other churches as well as for funerals, weddings and other services.  During the summers of 2003, 2005 and 2006, she played historic pipe organs in Austria while there to help care for grandchildren. Her daughter, Kerri Burkhardt, and Kerri’s husband were then working in Austria for the American Institute of Musical Studies.

One evening Rosenberg received a call from Father Carlos Leveling asking her to play a song she didn’t know — the University of Notre Dame’s fight song — at a funeral the next day. The priest sang the melody over the phone, and Rosenberg played a few notes. “You got it!” he exclaimed. She played the song the following day, and a few years later played it at Fr. Leveling’s funeral — per his request.

Last month, she provided music in Burlington for an interfaith benefit concert for Haiti, which featured pipe organ; grand piano; harpsichord; Clavinova duets, trios and quartets; classical and spiritual pieces and complex hymn arrangements. “It was really fun; I’d never done anything like that before,” Rosenberg said.

Today, her two sons, two daughters and seven grandchildren all sing or play instruments, she said. Burkhardt became a professional opera singer. And Rosenberg’s husband sang in St. Paul’s choir from 1972 until he died after a heart attack in 2004.

Rosenberg keeps his photo on the organ at St. Paul’s, to remind her of his encouragement in her musical endeavors. She sees it each Sunday as she plays during choir practice and 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Masses. She also accompanies the Des Moines County Resurrection Choir for funerals, and has been organist for Prugh Funeral Service in Burlington for 18 years.

“She’s so generous with her time and ability,” said Diane Mahoney, director of liturgical music for Ss. John & Paul Parish. “The biggest thing is her faithfulness and willingness to play at any time, at the drop of a hat.” The organist clearly loves her work, Mahoney said.

Rosenberg said she wishes more young people today would study the organ. She shares thanks for those who helped her realize her dream, especially her mother, 97, who Rosenberg said remains her biggest fan. 

“I still feel the same thrill when I touch those keys as I did 50 years ago,” she said. “I say a small prayer before I play each service, asking our Lord to bless my music and make it pleasing to him. I pray that the people in the congregation will be inspired by my music and feel closer to God.”

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