7 decades a singer: St. Johannes parishioner shares music of life, faith

After 70 years, Doris "Dodie" Duffey, 78, still has fun singing at St. Johannes Lutheran Church in downtown Charleston. During a break at a recent rehearsal, she chatted with fellow soprano Cynthia Mays.

Wade Spees

A lot has changed in Charleston since 1932, the year Doris "Dodie" Duffey was born. But one thing hasn't: Duffey, baptized and confirmed at St. Johannes Lutheran Church downtown, and a chorister since she was 8, still is singing.

It's been 70 years since she first joined St. Johannes' youth choir, and Duffey hasn't missed a beat.

This kind of longevity at any institution is pretty rare. People move. Their views change. Their interests evolve. So the people at St. Johannes, only a few of whom remember back more than a few decades, are a little in awe of Duffey.

"She's so open," gushes the Rev. Bruce Evenson, pastor of St. Johannes for the past five years. "There are a lot of Beatitudes in her."

He's referring to the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus addresses the multitudes:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Duffey, he says, has a deep faith and love for her family and her church. She attends Bible studies regularly. She never misses a Thursday choir rehearsal or Sunday worship service. She goes to the noonday Eucharist. She reads her daily devotion. She's there for lectures and special events. And she revels in the fellowship.

"She attends just about everything you could possibly attend at a church," Evenson says.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Evenson still is talking, full of compliments, trying to describe the character of an extraordinary parishioner, full of the knowledge that no words can convey what it's like to look Duffey in the eyes, to answer her queries and observe her commitment.

No words can express what it's like to be on the receiving end of her still-strong voice and undying enthusiasm for the life of this church, the church that she's grown up in, the church that means almost as much to her as her three daughters, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

"Dodie is, without a doubt, so treasured and loved in our congregation," Evenson says.

And other words pour out: humble, warm-hearted, curious. "She's always seeking and looking and wanting more and asking questions," he says.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Like Kathleen Battle

Duffey was born in Charleston and lives today in Hanahan. Her father was a Methodist, her mother a member of St. Johannes.

She grew up with a love for music, and especially vocal music. To this day, she is unique in her family for loving opera. Her favorite singer is lyric soprano Kathleen Battle.

St. Johannes, which has about 300 members, is the only church she's ever known. "That's home for me," she says. "I will be buried at St. Johannes, in the Garden of Beatitudes."

Her three daughters, Rhonda, Connie and Sharon, are members of St. Johannes. Four of her five grandchildren are members of St. Johannes. Only the youngest grandson chose a different path: he's a Baptist interested in becoming a missionary, Duffey says. Whatever, "so long as he goes to church."

She's been singing as long as she can remember. It's given her life focus and purpose. It helped her at 8 years old when her father died. And it helped her when she divorced her husband and became a single mom with very young children.

At 6, she belted Shirley Temple songs at school. When she was 10, an aunt in Savannah shipped a piano to Charleston, and her mother insisted she take piano lessons. Duffey protested. "Well, I wanted to take voice lessons," she says.

For five years, she struggled, battling her disinterest, then quit. She never did get to study voice formally; she had to content herself with remaining an enthusiastic amateur.

Years later, a validation: She sang Mozart's "Alleluia" at the wedding of a friend's daughter. "You sounded just like Kathleen Battle!" someone said.

It was one of the greatest compliments she has received.

Right there

Duffey is a soprano whose voice has succumbed a bit to the burden of the years, she says, though she can still hit the high notes better than most.

All of her children sang in the choir at St. Johannes at one point or another. The eldest daughter, Rhonda McNally, still is singing there, 51 years after she started.

McNally says her mother was strict and determined to protect them from bad influences.

"She did not let me run loose with crowds she did not like," McNally says. "Without a father figure, she was trying to do the whole thing." And trying to do the right thing.

There was church and Sunday school every week. There was the junior choir ("I was 7 when I went in -- that's what you did," McNally says).

And despite the modest income Duffey generated by working as an administrator for a life insurance company, she ensured the family was presentable, well-behaved and respected.

"We may have had three dresses, but they were washed every time we wore them," McNally says. "She always put her children first, before everything. ... She was always in our corner. If we were wrong, she told us we were wrong and she straightened us out." If they were right and needed defending," she was right there. She was involved in everything."

Praise

George Hiatt, organist and choirmaster at St. Johannes, says Duffey is very young at heart, "very vital, very much with the program." And a fine musician. "In fact, she's a treasure."

Then out pour the superlatives: Amazing, talented, courageous.

"She's sharp when it comes to reading music," Hiatt says. "She knows the craft of being a musician, she knows the craft of being a singer. ... Her talent is not just a natural thing for her, she's worked at it."

Health problems have not kept her from church. After quadruple bypass surgery, her doctor had no trouble explaining the operation's success: "The Lord must have wanted her around," he said.

The music and fellowship continue to lure her churchward.

"I always look forward to Sunday morning," Duffey says. "And Thursday night."

The choir, seven strong, is like a happy family, and the love extends throughout the congregation. "Everybody loves everybody down there," she says. "Even if they have a disagreement, they just work it out, because that's what you do."

Hiatt permits himself a psychological observation: Duffey raised her children alone, worked tirelessly to provide for them and committed her life to nurturing them.

"Church and music are two things that have brought her solace, have brought her happiness and peace," he says. "I can't see her anywhere but in that choir."

Blessings

Last month, Duffey was honored by the church for her years of service and fellowship. A special dinner was organized. Hiatt arranged for a driver in a cream-colored Rolls-Royce to pick her up in Hanahan and take her downtown. A red carpet was rolled out.

Duffey's modesty asserted itself. "I told them that, next to my family -- my children, my grandchildren -- this choir has become the love of my life."

Praise and appreciation ensued. She parried. "I feel I've been honored all these years," she said.

Hiatt, still employing superlatives a couple of weeks later, counterparries.

"She says it's a blessing that's been given to her, but really she's a blessing that's been given to them."

Meanwhile, there is another rehearsal, another anthem to learn, another part to pluck out on the piano. Duffey has work to do.

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or on Facebook.