Organist Presley the centerpiece’ for Zion Chapel

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 17, 2005

NATCHEZ &045; October sunlight streamed through stained-glass windows of the Zion Chapel sanctuary, bathing Francine Presley’s face with an amber glow.

The glow might just as easily have come from within, however, as she lifted her face toward the ceiling and sang in sweet soprano the words to her favorite hymn, &8221;When the Storms of Life Are Raging.&8220;

She knew the words to the hymn, and she accompanied herself on the old, well-tuned organ, her strong slender fingers reaching up and down the console as her foot pumped the pedals. She did not have to consult the music before her.

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Presley, 82, is organist at Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Natchez, where for more than 50 years she has played, taught and directed church music.

&8221;She is our centerpiece,&8220; the Rev. Arthur Brown, Zion Chapel pastor, said as he stood nearby listening and responding to Presley’s music with admiration. &8221;She can play anything in the book and expertly so. We never sing out of tune.&8220;

Francine Church Presley was about 3 years old when music first attracted her. &8221;We had an old, old piano,&8220; she said. &8221;I would hear a tune and go to that piano and search for the notes until I found the tune.&8220;

Her mother noticed, Presley said. &8221;She decided I needed music lessons.&8220; And the teachers one by one and year after year helped her to grow and mature as a musician, she said.

She remembers one strict teacher who rapped her fingers with a pencil if she missed the right keys. She recalls another who taught her in the building just recently torn down at Natchez College. &8221;That house had old, old memories for me. That tore a piece of my heart out to see them tear down that building,&8220; she said.

A nun at Holy Family Catholic Church introduced her to the organ, Presley said. &8221;She was as kind as she was beautiful. I learned a lot from her.&8220;

She studied with Matilde Mackel, once organist at Zion Chapel, and with Audrose Mackel, whom she succeeded as organist in 1953.

Of her musical gifts to the church, perhaps the most far-reaching is her discovery of talented young musicians, Brown said. &8221;She trains so many of our young people. She has discovered many young talents and is still doing that.&8220;

Presley recognized the talents of Tony Fields when he was a young chorister in the church. Today he is director of music at Zion Chapel.

&8221;She’s the reason I’m doing what I’m doing today,&8220; Fields said. &8221;When I was a little boy, she taught me hymns and other songs. She put me up there to sing. She told me to be brave. She told me that I was the best. And she’s still doing that today.&8220;

Her dedication is inspiring to everyone, Fields said. &8221;She does not miss a Sunday, and she’s at every rehearsal. And she’s still teaching the children.&8220;

One of her notable discoveries was Daisy Newman, Presley said. &8221;I discovered her when she was in first grade. She had such a beautiful voice and such potential. I pushed her as far as I could.&8220;

Newman went on to study with the finest teachers in the Northeast and to perform on stage in New York City. Today she is director of music at the University of California at Berkeley, Presley said.

For 35 years, in addition to her church activities, Presley, a graduate of Southern University in Baton Rouge, taught children in public schools in Natchez, including but not exclusively music classes.

&8221;We had beautiful operettas and musicals in the public schools then,&8220; she said.

Music is uplifting, she said. &8221;I still love music, especially the great hymns of the church.&8220;

The role of music in worship cannot be underestimated, she said. &8221;Music brings us a message. It uplifts those who are burdened and downhearted and brings joy to a sad heart.&8220;

Her husband, Rovell, died in 1974. Together, they had a favorite hymn, one she sang for her small audience on this fall afternoon.

&8221;I lost my mother and my husband, and those were two great storms of my life,&8220; she said. &8221;I needed someone to hang on to, and that was God, who gave me the strength and courage to keep going.&8220;

Her voice lifted higher as she sang the last verse of her favorite song.

&8221;When I’m growing old and feeble, stand by me. When my life becomes a burden and I’m nearing chilly Jordan, O Thou Lily of the Valley, stand by me.&8220;

She does not see notes as well as she once did, Presley said. And she does not hear as well as when she was younger. &8221;But I’m going to keep on going,&8220; she said.