Although missing their Sunday church service, Robert Cleary and Fiona Macleod are on the receiving end of regular phone calls that brighten their day.
Cleary calls Sunday one of their “anchor days,” when, pre-pandemic, they would get up, get dressed and go to church.
They miss that ritual. Instead, they listen to the service online, and when it’s finished, they look forward to a call from long-time friend Doug Hunter, but not to talk.
The friends chat often during the week, says Cleary. The Sunday phone call is all about music, when Hunter puts down his phone and plays hymns for them on his piano.
Hunter, soon to turn 95, spent Sunday mornings over a period of 20 years as the organist at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which he has attended for as long as he can remember. He retired as organist in1995. He also sang in the choir, as do Cleary and Macleod, still.
Hunter had hoped to reach his 80-year milestone as a choir member, but his doctor told him last summer he had to stop, or lose his voice completely.
As much as he loves to sing, he also likes to talk, so he gave up the choir after 79 years. “I’m pretty happy with that,” he says.
Music continues to be an important part of his life. Living independently in a Pleasant Manor condo, he has a piano with him, and loves to play for others.
When COVID-19 shut down physical church services, which continue virtually, Hunter began calling a few of his friends to play hymns for them.
“We love it,” says Cleary. “We really enjoy the hymns.”
And so did the others on Hunter’s list, which soon grew to 22 people. The phone calls had to be divided, with 11 friends receiving their piano concert of hymns every other week, making that day feel a little bit more like Sunday for them.
“I have always enjoyed music,” says Hunter. “I play hymns at home on Sunday mornings, and I wondered if I could share them with others. It was an idea that just came to me out of the blue, as a way to help those who are shut in. I’m playing my favourites for them. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun.”
Hunter plays 10 different hymns, over a period of 10 to 15 minutes, and for all except his friends Cleary and Macleod, whom he talks to regularly, he also spends about 10 minutes chatting. He values that time, he says, and to some of his friends, it likely means as much as the music.
Hunter considers himself one of the lucky ones, “very, very fortunate,” with loving family members close by, and daily phone calls. But he really wanted to help those who are feeling isolated during the pandemic, some of whom are cut off from their families.
He’s been asked why he doesn’t record his music and play it over the phone, “but I want to talk to people. That’s an important part of it. And I’m getting a real kick out of it. I’ve had a lot of very appreciative responses. Everybody seems to like it — I haven’t had anybody turn me down yet.” And then, in true Hunter fashion, he adds, “if a line goes dead, I’ll cross that one off the list.”
With such a love of music himself, he says, “if I can reach others through music, I’m happy to do it. It’s great to have it in your life.”
Cleary calls Hunter an “energizer bunny, and a wonderful person. We really appreciate what he’s doing.”
Macleod adds that “a lot of people Doug plays for can’t get out. It’s wonderful for someone who isn’t feeling well, or doesn’t have family nearby, to have him reaching out to them in that context.”
Cleary agrees. “Doug has been involved in the church for so long, he has the experience to understand the value of outreach. He knows what people need, and he reaches out to them to offer it.”