“It is with great sadness that we heard of the death last week of John Bell, principal organist of the Diocesan Choir of Argyll & the Isles and organist at St Mary’s, Portree…Conversations among priests often include anecdotes about their parish organist – too slow, too fast, too loud, awkward, difficult and uppity! None of these criticisms could be applied to Gentleman John.
For sure, he had his opinions. But he always saw music as the servant of the liturgy and made himself the servant of the parish community. He truly loved the whole world of church organ music. John didn’t just play the organ, he somehow prayed it! His technical skill was matched by the thoughtful and prayerful manner with which he chose music for the services. He then played that music in a way which would uplift the congregation’s minds and hearts or encouraged the congregation to lift up their hearts and voices to the Lord in song! John was a great organist, but he wasn’t a show off. He played to lead others in prayer. And he played beautifully, making his playing an act of prayer in itself…… Our cathedral liturgies were greatly improved by the high standard of his playing. As part of the team of organists for the Papal Mass in 2010, John’s maturity and the humility of his approach to the task at hand were greatly appreciated. His child-like pride at being involved in the Papal Liturgy was so strong that he couldn’t really comprehend how refreshing we found his contribution!
He was simply such a gentleman, a big man in so many ways, gently humorous and very kind. It was always a joy to see him – whether seated at the organ, or turning up at the door – out of the blue – in his beloved camper van! John was a magnanimous musician and we will miss him very much.”
John’s funeral Mass took place at St. Mary’s on 5 January. The church was full, with people attending from across the Diocese and further afield. Mgr. MacNeil (former Parish Priest of St. Mary’s) concelebrated with Fr. Willie Maclean (present Parish Priest), Fr. Hutson, Fr. Roddie Johnstone and Fr. David Connor, all of whom had had the joy of experiencing John’s music ministry.
John himself had chosen the music for the liturgy with Shona Campbell, cantor at St. Mary’s, and Shona sang the Psalm at the funeral. The music included “Be Thou my Vision”, Ps. 42 (the Bob Hurd setting), “Be still, for the presence”, the Shutte Mass of Christ the Saviour, “Sweet Sacrament Divine”, the Mary McKillop hymn,”We belong to God”, the Fitzpatrick setting of the Final Commendation, the plainsong Salve Regina and “City of God”.
In his homily, Mgr. MacNeil commented that the inclusion of the last named hymn had raised a few eyebrows because people had thought John was not fond of it but- typical John – he had been reluctant to play it simply because he didn’t think he played it as well as he should! Mgr MacNeil said we could view John’s sudden death as a disaster but we have to believe that God is good and it was his decision to take John at the right time for him. Reflecting on John’s humility and generosity of spirit, he reminded people that John had been seriously ill some ten years previously and had viewed his recovery as God giving him the gift of extra time. We should see it that way too and take heart from our belief in the Communion of Saints – John and so many good people who have gone before us are still linked with us in prayer. Turning to the words of that final hymn, he urged us therefore to go forth and build the City of God.
At the end of the Mass, a lengthy cortege followed the hearse over the single track road to the cemetery at Struan, where John and his family lived. As we sympathised with any vehicle which pulled over to let the hearse pass and then found itself stuck while the following cars wnet past, we thought about how John had travelled this lengthy road (some 11 miles) to come to play at Mass.
When we reached the cemetery in its beautiful setting overlooking the sea, we were led by a piper to the graveside for the final prayers and committal, with six bearers from the parish handing over partway to another six. The weather at least was kind as we said farewell to John and returned to Portree.