Praise service gives thanks for an outstanding life of devotion

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A praise service has marked the life and outstanding service of Knocknamuckley Parish Church choirmaster and organist George McDowell.

Parishioners from throughout the Lurgan and Portadown areas gathered to give thanks for the commitment and dedicated shown by the late Mr McDowell throughout his 58 years’ service.

The large congregation was ample testimony to the esteem in which Mr McDowell was held.

The memorial service - held on Sunday, February 28 - was conducted by Rev Jim McMaster, assisted by Canon Brian Blacoe.

The church choir opened the service with a beautiful arrangement of ‘Wonderful Grace’ which had introduced several years ago.

During the thanksgiving service, a plaque was dedicated to the memory of Mr McDowell, who passed away on March 27, 2015. The plaque - situated beside the organ - was unveiled by his wife Vera.

A specially-formed singing group consisting of present and past members of the church music scene during Mr McDowell’s 58 years in charge, delivered a haunting melody, ‘There is a day’.

This set the scene for the subject of Rev McMaster’s sermon, ‘Heaven’.

Mr McDowell served under the ministries of six rectors: Rev A J Finch, Rev Derick Wilson, Rev Jim McMaster, Canon Brian Blacoe, Rev Darren McCartney and Rev Alan Kilpatrick.

He was always self-effacing about his musical and choral abilities. He was always willing and able to help in any way he could to preserve, advance and modernise church music.

Despite many offers of grander and more lucrative posts he remained in the parish of his birth.

As a result of his passing, Knocknamuckley lost not only a musical giant but also a man who epitomised all the Christian virtues.

As he said to Vera just before his death: “At my funeral don’t tell them about me. They know all about me – tell them about the Lord. He’s much better to know.”

Mr McDowell’s first became involved with Knocknamuckley Parish Church at an early age.

Born in Bleary, he attended the church with his mother, who was very musical. From an early age he was ‘encouraged’ to play the piano. He was, like most young boys, reluctant to leave his playmates to practise for an hour each day.

He previously recalled that after numerous ‘escapes’ his mother locked the room door - forcing him to use the window!

However his mother’s faith in his ability was rewarded. Mr McDowell became an ardent musician not only excelling on the piano but proficient on the accordion, harmonica, guitar and flute. He performed frequently around the local churches at musical evenings, socials and concerts.

In 1957 at the age of 24 he was appointed organist and choirmaster of St. Matthias’ Parish Church, Knocknamuckley, a position he held for 58 years until his death.

The position involved much more than two services on Sunday and a choir practice once a week. He was expected to play at all church functions, including prize-givings, displays, Bible class - indeed anything in the Parish where music was required.

However, there was just one problem ... Mr McDowell had never played a church organ, so he went to Jim McGaffin for tuition, which was only needed for a few weeks.

Thus began a love affair between Mr McDowell and organ music. Such was his passion that he would sometimes go the Ritz Cinema in Belfast, not for the film, but to hear the ‘mighty Wurlitzer’ organ which was played during the interval.

Family holidays were often spent in Blackpool where he could visit the Tower Ballroom to hear the legendary Reginald Dickson.

Often soloists would arrive just before the start of a service and hand him a scrap of paper with the titles of their pieces written on it. Although there was no tune, no key and no time to practise, it was exceptional for Mr McDowell not to have picked up both by the end of the first verse.

After he retired from his job in Blane’s Factory, he would often spend several hours playing the church organ.

In the empty church the music reached a new dimension which he described as ‘the nearest thing to heaven, on earth!’

Such was his preoccupation that he lost track of time, and Vera, his wife had to buy him a mobile phone to remind him that his dinner was waiting!

His musical range was very wide including classical to Christian, both ancient and modern.

In all the outstanding years of service to Knocknamuckley, however, he consistently kept himself in the background, seeking no praise or recognistion. He simply enjoyed serving God and the people of the church he himself had been a member of all his life.

He was always reliable, approachable, flexible and co-operative and many expressed that he was a pleasure to work with over the years.

Mr McDowell made an immense contribution, not only to the life of the church but also, and at times more so to individuals and families going through important times in their lives. His music on such occassions was a source of comfort, strength and uplift to those who needed it and when occasions demanded it a means of joy and celebration.

Many have expressed their admiration and gratitude for what his music meant to them at such times.

Reminiscences continued over the supper provided by the ladies of the Catering Committee. Mrs McDowell was presented with flowers as a memento of the occasion and she thanked warmly all those involved in making such a wonderful evening possible.