JEFFERSON — The magnificent vista from the pulpit shows Damariscotta Lake, dotted with a tiny island of green, and the Camden Hills in the background.

The sound surrounding the pulpit and filling Bunker Hill Baptist Church is just as sweet, notes rising from the 1890 Estey pump organ, and merging with the 10 voices in the choir. The pedals, the stops and the keys are worked by Mark L. Johnston, of Manchester.

Mark Johnston, right, and Ed "Ted" Lincoln confer Sunday on the steps of the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson. Johnston has played instruments for 50 years at the chapel, where Lincoln serves as moderator.

Mark Johnston, right, and Ed “Ted” Lincoln confer Sunday on the steps of the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson. Johnston has played instruments for 50 years at the chapel, where Lincoln serves as moderator. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

For the past 50 years, Johnston, who retired in December 2014 as president and CEO of Kennebec Savings Bank, has been the organist every Sunday in the summer, along with weddings and funerals of longtime church members, the hymn sing in Advent, and the Easter Sunrise service.

“I can probably count on one hand the number of Sundays I wasn’t here,” he said. Once he was sick, and once last summer he signed up for a weeklong program at The Gaelic College on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, and knew he wouldn’t make it back.

“Over the past 50 years I’ve played for a lot of neighbors’ funerals, people who’ve been loyal to the church,” said Johnson, now 63.

His family worshiped there for as long as he can remember.

“I grew up a mile from the church,” Johnston said.

He had begun organ lessons when he was about 12.

“When I was 13, I was asked to fill in one Sunday,” he said, sitting in a pew in the middle of the church. “I’ve never left. Fifty years later I’m still here. You have to be careful what you sign up for.”

He earned $2 each Sunday, a wage that he decided “wasn’t enough” in 1970 as he was about to enter his senior year at Lincoln Academy. So he and his friends organized a protest.

A note by the church secretary at the time, Barbara Lincoln, recounts what happened at a June 19, 1970, special meeting to discuss church ministers for the summer:

“We voted to raise the pay of the Minister of Music to $4 per Sunday. We had been forewarned that a march would take place for higher wages for the Minister of Music, and this was done at 8:35 p.m. Those taking part were Mark, Rick and Laurie Johnston, Ted and Brenda Lincoln, Raymond Hunt, David and Rodney Crockett and Ann Miskovski. This march was all in fun, of course, and was enjoyed by us all.”

Mark Johnston plays the organ during Sunday service at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson.

Mark Johnston plays the organ during Sunday service at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

“We had signs and marched around the church,” Mark Johnston recalled. “They raised it to $4. Then I felt so guilty, I stopped taking the salary. It’s a labor of love for me.”

Johnston joined the Bunker Hill Grange 554 next door when he was 14. At that time, the Grange members met upstairs, and the Ladies Aid Society met downstairs. Now the Ladies Aid Society has the whole building, which has all the facilities the church itself lacks.

The last regular service of the summer is to be held Sunday, and Johnston will be there as well, with his wife, Judy, on the piano and his mother, Gladys, 86, in one of the pews as usual.

“I hardly ever miss,” Gladys Johnston said. “We only have 10 Sundays.”

Johnston’s father, Richard “Dick” Johnston, attended until his death on Sunday, July 3.

“It was the first service he had missed in years,” said Johnston, who played the music for his father’s funeral.

On Sept. 11, Johnston will be back at his fall, winter and spring gig playing the piano for the Winthrop United Methodist Church.

“The piano is a much better instrument for accompanying the choir,” he said.

Mark Johnston and Judy Barnes arrange music Sunday before Johnston plays the organ and the piano at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson.

Mark Johnston and Judy Barnes arrange music Sunday before Johnston plays the organ and the piano at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

There, Judy Barnes is the regular organist, and she spent last Sunday playing the piano and accompanying Johnston at the Bunker Hill service. Normally, Johnston’s wife, Judy, accompanies him on the piano.

In Jefferson, Johnston sometimes moves to the piano for special music.

But the Jefferson church, with its small congregation of family and friends, holds his heart.

Three chandeliers illuminate the interior of the historic white church, which has a simple wooden cross above the pulpit and two wood stoves at each side of the rear, split firewood stacked near each. The stoves regularly heat the building for the annual Christmas service and the Easter sunrise service.

The flues rise from the stoves to the ceiling, where they join in a single flue that runs the length of the church and out the wall behind the pulpit.

On Sunday, the Rev. Bob Hargreaves, of Nobleboro, an Episcopalian priest, was the guest minister.

“I used to live just 4 miles up the road,” he said. He loves returning for a Sunday each summer.

Mark Johnston turns to a composition Sunday while playing the organ and the piano at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson.

Mark Johnston turns to a composition Sunday while playing the organ and the piano at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

“I get to stand up at the front and look out at this,” Hargreaves said, pointing to the lake across the street. The congregation, he noted, gets to look at him.

“Mark’s just fantastic,” Hargreaves said. “He’s really the backbone of this church, and I love singing with him.”

Ed “Ted” Lincoln, is the church’s moderator, usher and communion server.

“My dad was moderator before Ted,” Johnston said. “This is a dynasty between the Lincoln and Johnston family.”

Lincoln sits in the back pew during services, directing visitors to a paper welcoming them to the church and listing the “Order of Service.” “I’ve been here forever,” he said.

One of Lincoln’s jobs is to pull the rope on the bell that rings to call the people to the service. Like Johnston, Lincoln and his sister, now Brenda Lake, first came to the church in the arms of their parents.

Johnston grew up on Deer Meadow Farm, where his father ran the apple orchard, raised Hereford beef cattle, and had a dairy cow, which his father milked by hand.

“We basically lived off the farm, if you will,” Johnston said.

The Estey philharmonic instrument requires a lot from the organist.

Mark Johnston plays the piano for the chorus during Sunday service at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson. Johnston has played the organ and the piano at the chapel for 50 years.

Mark Johnston plays the piano for the chorus during Sunday service at the Bunker Hill Baptist Church in Jefferson. Johnston has played the organ and the piano at the chapel for 50 years. Staff photo by Andy Molloy

“I pump the organ and fill the bellows with air,” Johnston said. It required even more foot-pumping to get the bellows filled a number of years ago before the mouse-chewed holes were repaired.

“It helps my step count,” said Johnston, who is a member of Central Maine Striders and regularly participates in road races for various charities. “It is possible to electrify it, but because of the Fitbit count, I don’t want to electrify it.”

On Sunday the guest minister at Bunker Hill Baptist Church will be the Rev. Jim O’Brien. Johnston will be at the organ, rounding out his half century.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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