Hymn music is wafting out of St James’ Chapel, the large, beautifully rebuilt church in Anglicare’s Castle Hill retirement village.

At the organ is Mary Patfield, who stops to greet me before continuing to play “Finlandia” by Sibelius – humming to herself or quietly singing the words of trust and faith in the accompanying hymn.

At 97 her hearing isn’t the best, but there’s nothing wrong with her musicality or skill at the organ. She’d never say so herself – Mrs Patfield is quick to downplay her own talents and point to the gifts of others – but let’s just put modesty aside for a moment. This woman can play. 

After she finishes, she slips off the soft shoes that make it easier to operate the pedals under the keyboard, and we sit by a sunny window for a chat.

“I enjoy being able to play – to play music that people feel they can relate to and that you can learn from,” she says. “These wonderful hymns have so much to tell us about our Saviour and Lord. I like good, strong hymns, but some wonderful devotional hymns, too... ‘When I Survey’ – that’s a magnificent hymn – and of course ‘The Lord’s My Shepherd’, which is so well known. And some of the newer ones like ‘How Deep the Father’s Love’. That’s the most gorgeous thing, isn’t it?”

So, what’s her idea of a good, strong, hymn? “Those German tunes... ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’. He is a mighty fortress; he’s so dependable.”

Mrs Patfield grew up attending Christ Church, Gladesville when the rector was the Rev Canon David Knox (father of Broughton Knox), and the honorary curate for many years was future archbishop Marcus Loane. She learned the piano as a child but began to play the organ for church at about 15, because the organists had gone to fight in World War II and “there was nobody around to play”.

Modestly stepping back once the trained organists returned, she has continued to play when needed ever since. In parishes such as Seaforth, Wentworthville and Annandale, where her husband the Rev Ron Patfield was rector, Mrs Patfield would step into the breach whenever a regular organist could not play.

“I’m not a professional organist or a classical organist,” she says earnestly. “I’m just really just an ordinary congregational organist and I’m happy to be that.”

She recalls that in 1959, not long after they moved to Wentworthville, they took buses full of people to the Billy Graham Crusade about three times a week. “We got so many referrals... it was a lot of work, but it was wonderful to see those people coming to faith. And then we eventually built a bigger church.”

They moved into Anglicare’s Castle Hill village 17 years ago, and for many years Mrs Patfield has happily served at the organ of St James’ Chapel – although she’s a little sorrowful that, since COVID, hymns are now led on the big screen with a prerecorded choir while congregation members sing through their masks. 

However, for two or three weeks each month, as everyone comes into church, she is at the organ quietly playing hymns “that speak to people’s minds and relate to the sermon”. She then provides something triumphant for the close of the service.

Mrs Patfield had an enforced break earlier this year while she had a pacemaker fitted but she’s now back at the organ seat, and plans to keep going for as long as her fingers allow it. 

“I’m very fortunate that I haven’t got a lot of arthritis and l can still play,” she says with a smile. “I’m 98 in October. So I’m getting on!”