Smithsburg native pens book of hymns

November 28, 2009|By CHRIS COPLEY

Growing up in Washington County, Carolyn Winfrey had a lot of music in her life. She took piano lessons and sang and played hand bells at Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown.

But in the past decade, the modest girl from Smithsburg has developed a reputation as a writer of contemporary hymns.

The Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is now a pastor serving a Presbyterian church near Wilmington, Del., and earlier this year published her second book of hymns.

Gillette's hymns are now sung around the world.

"I got a note from a little church north of the Arctic Circle. They used a hymn in a Sunday service," she said. "Then, the same day, we heard from an Anglican church in the United Arab Emirates. They had used a different song."

Song writing is a way for Gillette to extend her ministry.

"I really try to write words that help people to connect their life to their faith in new ways," she said. "I remember a mother coming in one Sunday. She was very excited. She and her son had talked in the car going home from church the week before, and he told her, 'Mom, I understood the words to that hymn we just sang.'"


Songs for Advent

This week, The Presbyterian Outlook magazine (online at published a new hymn commissioned from Gillette for Advent, the Christian season of preparation that precedes Christmas. The hymn is part of a set of songs.

"I just wrote four Advent hymns to Christmas carol tunes. There's one for each week in Advent," she said. "A lot of pastors have a problem with singing Christmas carols before Christmas."

Presbyterians and some other Christian denominations follow the liturgical year, which traces the life and work of Jesus Christ through specified Bible readings. In the back of her new collection of 77 hymns, "Songs of Grace: New Hymns for God and Neighbor" Gillette includes an index that suggests hymns suitable for different parts of the church year.

Also in "Songs of Grace," Gillette included background, relevant Bible verses and a short meditation on the meaning of each hymn. She said some readers of her first hymn collection, "Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today's Worship," told her they had used the hymn texts as a sort of daily devotional reading.

In her second collection, Gillette expanded her meditations.

Words to music

Most of Gillette's primary and secondary schooling took place in Smithsburg. She said she learned to love language from her parents, David and Jane Winfrey, who still live in Washington County.

"I grew up surrounded by words, expressing myself with words, aware of what fun you can have with words," she said.

She studied for a year at Hagerstown Junior College, where her father, David Winfrey, was an English professor, and finished her degree at Lebanon Valley College near Harrisburg, Pa. She followed a calling to the ministry and entered Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey.

A member of the United Methodist Church before entering Princeton, Gillette said her life changed in seminary.

"I met a Presbyterian and fell in love," she said. "We thought it would be good to work in the same denomination."

She and her husband, the Rev. Bruce Gillette, married in 1984 and in 2004 became co-pastors at Limestone Presbyterian Church near Wilmington. They have three children, John, 21, a senior at Juniata College; Catherine, 18, freshman at Wooster College; and Sarah, 16, a junior at The Charter School in Wilmington.

Points of view

In addition to "Songs of Grace," Gillette published a collection of 45 hymns, "Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today's Worship," (Westminster John Knox) in 2000.

She got her start writing hymn texts at a Bible conference at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pa.

"Someone talked about setting the Ten Commandments to music. I thought that would be an interesting thing to do," she said. "I wrote a version of that."

Gillette said Bruce has been the networker. He knows a lot of people in publishing. She focuses on writing, sometimes staying up late into the night when working with a text.

Gillette said she approaches hymn writing from two points of view -- vertically (worshipper relating to God) and horizontally (worshipper relating to others in the world).

"Praise music often is God-and-me -- it's vertical. I believe in vertical and horizontal (approaches)," she said. "God calls us not only to praise him, but to look around at the world (where) you see hunger, injustice, poverty. That's where the subtitle of the new hymn collection came from."

She writes words to traditional hymn tunes. The tunes are not copyrighted, so they're easy to use. Plus, she said, worshippers are sometimes reluctant to sing unfamiliar songs. But they will try a new song if they know the tune.

"I love the old hymns. I grew up with the traditional songs of the church," she said. "But I guess it comes back to helping each generation claiming the faith as their own."

New hymn for Advent

The Presbyterian Outlook magazine released this hymn for use in worship today, the first Sunday of the pre-Christmas season of Advent. The Rev. Carolyn Winfrey Gillette wrote the hymn text to the tune of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear." Here are just the first two verses of the hymn.

"God, You Alone Know What You've Planned"

Sung to the tune of "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear"

God, you alone know what you've planned
For earth and sky and sea.
Creation waits your loving hand
To bring in what will be.
When things we trust in shift and shake
And sorrows multiply,
We hear you calling, "Keep awake!
Redemption is close by!"

O Christ, you taught us, "Watch the trees
As seasons change each year,
For when they bud and grow new leaves
You know that summer's near."
May we look round this changing earth
And see with faith-filled eyes
Your signs of newness, life and birth
That witness to the wise.

-- Used by permission of Carolyn Winfrey Gillette

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