Music professor shaped hymnals, generations’ relationship with arts

Mary Oyer, Goshen College.

Mary K. Oyer, a music professor who influenced many Mennonites’ relationship with the fine arts, died Jan. 11 in Goshen, Ind. The Goshen College professor emerita of music and former professor of church music at what is now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary was 100.

Oyer taught at Goshen from 1945 to 1987, during which time she developed a fine arts course that 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 made a significant musical impact on broader Mennonite and ecumenical communities around the world. She played a key role in the publication 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.

Mary Oyer directs Goshen College’s Motet Singers in 1954. — Goshen College
Mary Oyer directs Goshen College’s Motet Singers in 1954. — Goshen College

Oyer was born April 5, 1923, in ­Hesston, Kan., to Noah and Siddie King Oyer. A year later the family moved to Goshen, where her father became 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 part of the college’s first string quartet.

She graduated in 1945 and 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 the summers, she studied cello at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where in 1958 she became the first string player to earn a doctor of musical arts performance degree.

Her interest in ethnomusicology began in 1969 when she traveled to Africa as a Fulbright Scholar. She returned to Goshen with enthusiasm for new and broader understandings of music and the arts, which she integrated into her teaching. She spent many more summers over the next two decades in Africa and served as a visiting professor at Kenyatta University in Kenya in 1985-86.

After she retired from Goshen in 1987, she continued teaching for another 10 years at AMBS and then taught for five years from 1999 to 2004 at Tainan Theological College and Seminary in Taiwan.

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; the second was her gift of bringing the sacred music of other cultures into the Mennonite Church.

Oyer was 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 varied worship settings, including national conventions and Mennonite World Conference assemblies. She helped establish the hymn “Praise God From Whom,” better known as “606,” as the Mennonite “anthem” after she led it in 1969 at a church gathering in Oregon.

Oyer was a 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.

Oyer is survived by sister-in-law Carol S. Oyer; nieces Rebecca Oyer, Kathryn Oyer and Sarah (Sally) Oyer; and nephew Timothy Oyer of Chicago. She was preceded in death by siblings Verna I. Oyer and John S. Oyer.

Sign up to our newsletter for important updates and news!