Congregation praises years of joyful noise

Music: A Baltimore church honors the man who directed its choirs and worshippers in song for more than five decades.

May 27, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Morris Chester Queen made his musical debut at age 9, playing the piano for the congregation at his family's church.

Yesterday - 71 years later - the music was being played for him, a tribute to the man who has spent the past 55 years as music director at Sharp Street Memorial United Methodist Church. He missed just one Sunday service in all those years - and then only because his wife, Ovella, refused to let him go to church on the day he had been released from the hospital.

"He believes in the best music he can present," said pianist Audrey Cyrus McCallum, who figures she has known Queen for 50 years. "He has inspired all of us."

Queen's last official Sunday on the pipe organ was at the end of April. But yesterday, hundreds of congregants and friends, people he directed in choirs for five decades and many of their children, gathered to put on a show for him with music and kind words and lots of love.

"For my whole life I have known no other organist but Morris Queen," said David Moore, who has spent years as an assistant conductor to Queen and has followed in his footsteps in other ways, too. Moore is a music teacher at Middle River Middle School. Queen spent 25 years as a music teacher in Baltimore schools.

"You don't feel completely at home," Moore said of life at Sharp Street after Queen. "Something is missing. He is such an integral part of all that I have known at this church."

"It's hard to put into words all the things that he had done," said David Anderson Sr., who has attended the church since 1955. "He's missed already."

Sharp Street is a church with a long history. It is said to be the oldest black congregation in Baltimore, dating to 1787. Frederick Douglass sang in the choir in the 1830s.

When Queen was a boy living in Northwest Baltimore, his father would bring him to Sharp Street to hear the music. Since black performers couldn't play at the segregated Lyric Opera House, many played there.

Queen came to the church in 1947 after a stint in the Navy during World War II, during which he trained choirs and arranged music for the Great Lakes Naval Octet, which was broadcast during the war over CBS Radio. He went on to earn degrees from Howard University even as he was working at the church. For years he has also directed community choirs. One was known as the Morris Queen Chorale.

"Music is just part of the church," he said. "It's not all spoken word - you have to tell the word of God through music."

But he's not thrilled with where church music has gone over the years. "Today in church it's more entertainment than worship," Queen said. "I don't consider much of the lyrics biblical words. Then there's clapping and body movement and all that stuff which detracts from the worship."

At 80, he figured it was time to retire. "I said, `I've paid my dues.' I just need to hang it up and let somebody else take over," Queen said.

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