Mary K. Oyer, professor emerita of music, dies at 100 years old

2013, Mary K. Oyer

Mary K. Oyer, professor emerita of music, died on January 11, 2024, in Goshen at the age of 100.

1958, GC Motet Singers

Oyer taught at Goshen College from 1945 to 1987, during which time she developed a Fine Arts course that became legendary among students and was instrumental in bringing wide recognition and acceptance of the fine arts in a Mennonite liberal arts education. She introduced more than 5,000 students to the fundamentals of art and music.

“Mary was a teacher, musician and scholar ahead of her time in so many ways,” said President Rebecca Stoltzfus. “She introduced Goshen College to a truly global soundscape and fundamentally shaped our strong arts and music culture. We are forever indebted to her.”

Oyer also made a significant musical impact on broader Mennonite and ecumenical communities around the world. She played a key role in the publications of two Mennonite hymnals and numerous songbooks, collected and recorded traditional music in 22 African countries, and nurtured the musical gifts of countless students in a lifetime of teaching.

1959

Oyer was born on April 5, 1923, in Hesston, Kansas to Noah and Siddie King Oyer. A year later the family moved to Goshen, where her father became the academic dean and professor of Bible at the college. In 1941, Oyer began attending Goshen College where she majored in music and minored in art. As a cellist, she was also part of the first string musical quartet at the college.

She graduated from Goshen College in 1945 and then began teaching at the college later that year. She started as a cello instructor, a teacher of music courses and a choral ensemble director. During her summers, she studied cello at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where in 1958 she became the first-ever string player to earn a Doctor of Musical Arts performance degree from the university.

1978, leading music at the Mennonite World Conference Photo by Gerald Schlabach

Her interest in ethnomusicology began in 1969 when Oyer traveled to Africa as a Fulbright Scholar. She returned to Goshen with lively enthusiasm for new and broader understandings of music and the arts, which she integrated into her teaching. Following that experience, she spent many more summers over the next two decades in Africa, experiencing African music firsthand and recording regional music in 22 different countries. The 150 tapes from these visits have now been digitized and are part of the Mary K. Oyer African Music Archive at Goshen College. She also served as a visiting professor at Kenyatta University in Kenya in 1985-1986.

After she retired from Goshen College in 1987, she continued teaching for another 10 years at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, Indiana) as professor of church music, and then taught for five years from 1999 to 2004 at Tainan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan.

2016, photo by John Tirotta

With a history of being a trailblazer, Oyer is credited with ushering in two revolutions in Mennonite worship. The first was her emphasis on the fine arts while teaching at Goshen College, the second was her gift of bringing the sacred music of other cultures into the Mennonite Church.

Oyer is recognized as being integral in shaping what Mennonite music sounds like today. She was instrumental in gathering hymns and songs for the widely used 1969 and 1992 Mennonite hymnals, and for more than six decades taught those hymns to the wider church in myriad worship settings, including national conventions and world conferences. She is well known for her role in helping establish the hymn “Praise God From Whom,” better known as “606,” as the Mennonite “anthem” after she led it in 1969 at the church-wide assembly in Oregon.

Between 1977-1982

Throughout her life, Oyer found exploration of the arts of other cultures to be the most meaningful  pathway to understanding those cultures. She earned broad respect for this work and continued to explore diverse types of music within the church, including African American and Native American music.

Oyer’s musical impact extended well beyond Mennonites as she became an active leader in the Hymn Society in North America, where she served as research editor, was a keynote speaker at many conferences, and was inducted as a fellow in 1989.

In 2007, a book titled Nurturing Spirit through Song: The Life of Mary K. Oyer and a DVD titled Nurturing Spirit Through Song: The Legacy of Mary K. Oyer were produced to record Mary’s contributions.

2013, 90th birthday celebration at GC Music Center

Oyer is survived by sister-in-law Carol S. Oyer of Goshen, IN; nieces Rebecca Oyer of Lafayette, LA, Kathryn Oyer of Goshen, and Sarah (Sally) Oyer (Michael Cerceo) of Seattle; nephew Timothy Oyer (Joanne) of Chicago; great-nieces Carrie Friesen-Meyers (Eliot) of Berkeley, CA, Rachael Gingrich (Jonathan) of Portland, OR, Anicka Meyers (Shey Dunlop) of Portland, OR, and Mia Cerceo of Chicago; great-nephews Benjamin Cerceo of Seattle, John Oyer of Chicago, and Noah Oyer of Chicago; and great-great nieces and nephews Greta, Alex, Owen and Leighton. She was preceded in death by her parents, and by siblings Verna I. Oyer and John S. Oyer.

Visitation will be 4 to 8 p.m., Saturday, March 9, 2024 at College Mennonite Church, where a 2:30 p.m. memorial service will be conducted Sunday, March 10, 2024 (which will be livestreamed). Further information is available at Yoder-Culp Funeral Home.

Memorial contributions may be made to Goshen College, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Mennonite Central Committee or Mennonite Mission Network.


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Timeline of Mary K. Oyer’s life

  • April 5, 1923 – Mary Kathryn Oyer was born in Hesston, Kansas, to Noah and Siddie King Oyer. A year and a half later, the family moved to Goshen, Ind., where her father is academic dean and professor of Bible at the college, as well as pastor of College Mennonite Church.
  • 1931 – Mary’s father dies of typhoid fever. Her mother becomes the matron of GC’s men’s dormitory in order to support her three young children.
  • 6th grade – Starts cello lessons at Parkside Elementary School.
  • 1941 – Graduates from Goshen High School. While in high school, Mary played French horn in the marching band. During World War II, Mary volunteered as a conscientious objector at a mental hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, for a summer.
  • 1945 – Graduates from Goshen College (majored in music, minored in art). She was part of the first musical quartet at the college. In addition, she participated in Avon Literary Society, the Record staff, Home Economics Club, German Club and the Maple Leaf yearbook. In the fall, she began graduate work in music literature at the University of Michigan and her teaching career at GC.
  • In the late 1940s – Developed a Fine Arts course at Goshen College. It is estimated that more than 5,000 students were introduced to the fundamentals of art and music through this particular course.
  • 1958 – Was the first string player to receive the University of Michigan’s new doctorate in performance practices (cello). She studied with Oliver Edel, a renowned concert cellist. She later played in the South Bend Symphony Orchestra.
  • 1960s – Was the first woman to serve on the Mennonite church’s hymnal committee (Mennonite Hymnal released in 1969). She later edited the Hymnal Sampler, the forerunner to Hymnal: A Worship Book, which was published in 1992.
  • 1969 – Made visit to Africa as a Fulbright Scholar for 10 weeks. Her frequent exploration of the African continent continued through the 1970s and 1980s, and included living and teaching in Kenya for five years.
  • 1969 – Popularized the Doxology, “Praise God from Whom” (#606 in the Mennonite Hymnal), at a church assembly in Turner, Ore.
  • 1987 – Retired from Goshen College. Two years later began teaching at Anabaptist-Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) for nine years.
  • 1989 – For her contributions and mentorship of so many, she was named a Fellow of the Hymn Society.
  • 1992 – Hymnal: A Worship Book published and includes 60 cross-cultural hymns inspired by her expanding interests in world music.
  • 1999 – First visit to Tainan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan to teach.
  • 2000 – Included as one of 20 of the most influential Mennonites of the 20th century by The Mennonite.
  • 2004 – Moved out of the house on the corner of 8th Street and College Avenue in Goshen that she had lived in for 80 years.
  • 2005 – Teaches in the first Lifelong Learning Institute of Elkhart County courses on the Goshen College campus.
  • 2006 – Honored with the Distinguished Service Award from the Global Consultation on Music and Missions.
  • 2013 – Her collection of more than 150 field recordings from 22 African countries have been digitized and cataloged online as the “Mary K. Oyer African Music Archive.”
  • April 19-20, 2013 – 90th birthday celebration weekend at Goshen College.
  • April 5, 2023 – 100th birthday