Irma Tillery: A Tribute

Irma Tillery is remembered as a dynamic woman who helped to bring African American music into our regular worship.

Irma Tillery: A Tribute

Irma Tillery: A Tribute 500 608 Episcopalians in Connection

Irma Tillery

Irma Tillery, organist at St. Andrew’s, Evanston, (Cincinnati) for over 30 years, played a pivotal role in bringing the Lift Every Voice and Sing hymnal and the beautiful heritage of African American music and worship into the national Episcopal Church. As a contributor to the African American hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing II, she arranged Oh What a Beautiful City (LEVAS 10), Joshua fit de Battle of Jericho (LEVAS 223), and contributed to an original composition of Oh Lord, How Perfect is your Name (LEVAS 57).

Irma died on November 21, 2021. She was 96 years old. Irma truly loved the Lord by giving him thanks and praise with her voice and her hands (playing her piano). With a 30-year career as a music teacher in Cincinnati Public Schools, and her long-time affiliation with the Episcopal Church, Irma shared her gifts with countless people across the US. What follows are tributes to Irma from others in the church who knew and loved her. We hope that they will give you a glimpse of the Irma that we knew and loved and that her memory may be a blessing to all those who read this tribute.

I got a call on the last Sunday evening of November 2021 to let me know that Irma Tillery had passed away in her sleep while taking an afternoon nap. Irma had always given me a standing invitation to come visit her anytime I wanted. Usually this meant I was supposed to bring my ukulele and “make sure not to plan anything for after the visit,” because Irma knew that her stories might take a while.

Some of my favorite memories of Irma include sitting at her piano bench struggling to follow along while she played Amazing Grace yelling out “key change” as soon as I got the melody right on my ukulele. There is also the first time that I met Irma in person after we came back to the church last June. Irma came up to me during the peace and asked if she could “play a little something” for the offertory. Our music director Neil Stewart graciously invited Irma up to play at the grand piano in the chancel. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when Irma asked, we knew that it was a special moment that had to happen. It took her a little while to get up to the piano and she needed a little bit of help getting up the steps, but when she sat down at that piano, her fingers had their dancing shoes on as she played “Somewhere over the Rainbow” with the deftness of a lifetime of practice and love of her art. I will also remember how Irma would stand up in the aisle on Gospel Sunday and dance as the last hymn was playing.

Irma was a remarkable person who had remarkable talents, which she shared with her family and the church. Irma did not have an easy life. She had pains and struggles, heartaches, and loss. But she had a joy that nothing on earth could take away and she shared her joy and she made hearts sing.

Before I left Irma’s house for the last time, having said prayers at the time of death with Irma’s family over her peaceful resting body, Irma’s grandson Nelson told me how they had found her. He told me that they found her reaching up toward heaven with a smile on her face “just like her daddy had done.”

What a blessing it was to know Irma, and we thank God for her ministry, for the ease of her passing, and for the eternal joy that she will surely inhabit at the second coming of our Savior.

The Rev. Christopher Slane– St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Evanston, OH

Irma Tillery’s journey at St. Andrew’s as Music Director was filled with many accomplishments. Irma was like a tree planted by the water. Her reach to the choir and congregation was far and wide. Everyone was aware of the many years that Irma was a Teacher of Music with Cincinnati Public Schools. Holding that position illuminated her steadfast teaching approach with our choir members, they were always saying, “Ms. Tillery knows exactly what she’s doing.” They all loved her.

My direct experience with Irma came because of our volunteering for outreach at St. Paul Village-Senior Living Facility. A group of members from St. Andrew’s volunteered to visit the St. Paul Village facility for Bible Study. Irma was selected to be the songstress and never missed a Bible Study. She had an understanding about Scripture that was respected and noted.

We referred to her as being faithful and true in whatever she undertook. Always ready to give input and pearls of wisdom about life in general that were forever timely. St. Andrew’s congregation will truly miss her.

Katrina Mundy

Irma was a pillar of St. Andrew’s. And, up until COVID hit, she would come to the midweek Lenten Service and play a hymn or two on the piano. She was one of the most upbeat and positive people I ever met. Being in her presence made me feel good about myself, as she was always complimentary and encouraging. She has left an indelible mark on so many people, including me. I am a better person for having known her.

Anne Reed, Deacon

Irma was a teacher, an exceptional musician, and a good friend. When I first came to St. Simon of Cyrene in 1992, people would always say: “Irma Tillery doesn’t play it or sing it that way!” At first, I was in awe of this woman that I had not met who commanded so much authority. She was on the Editorial Committee of Lift Every Voice and Sing II. She was one of three women chosen by Bishop Arthur Williams to serve.

She introduced Lift Every Voice and Sing II to the Diocese of Southern Ohio at Church of Our Saviour in Mount Auburn, and I finally got the chance to meet Irma. At first, she was little stand-offish. I came to learn that Irma Tillery was anything but stand-offish. She would let you know how she felt in no uncertain terms and was not afraid to tell you – a priest, a choir member or anyone else – what was what.

As time passed, Irma held another introduction of LEVAS II for the Black church musicians, priests, and anyone who wanted to come, at St. Andrew’s in Evanston. She solicited the help of one of her Delta Sisters, Joyce Robinson, from St. Philip’s in Columbus. Let there be no doubt that and Irma and Joyce were both true Deltas and fireballs. I had the best time with the two ladies. Over the years, I came to be very close friends with both Irma and Joyce. I always called each of them to discuss what we wanted to do for Absalom Jones. Oh Lord if you only could have heard some of those conversations! Irma was a big supporter of the Union of Black Episcopalians and in the early years she and her husband attended several national conventions on the East Coast.

It is very ironic and interesting that both Joyce and Irma passed this year in November. Joyce was 85 and Irma was 96. May God’s Light Perpetual Shine on them!

Irma Tillery and Joyce Robinson are two Black leaders and musicians that have left legacies in the Diocese of Southern Ohio. I have no doubt that the two of them will keep God’s heavenly choir lifting every voice and singing!

Frank M. Carr, Jr.

I met Irma when I joined St. Andrew’s Church. We both lived in Evanston and were always together. Irma’s passions were music, Bible study, and fashion (especially hats).

Irma loved Bible study at St. Andrew’s on Wednesdays and at St. Paul’s Village on Fridays. Irma played piano before we started and after our lessons. The residents at St. Paul’s Village loved to sing along with her. Her daughter asked Irma why she was always in such a hurry. Irma said that she didn’t want to be late. In the ten years that we did Bible study at St. Paul’s Village, Irma was never late.

After Bible study at St. Paul’s, she and I always stopped at UDF to buy bananas. The cashiers at UDF were very fond of Irma. They knew that Irma was coming so they would pick out the good bananas and save them for her. Irma was a person who could make friends wherever she went.

In 2016, Episcopal Retirement Services gave Irma an award for her volunteer work at St. Paul’s Village. In 2020, Irma was given an award by the Evanston Community Council for the works she had done at St. Andrew’s, other churches in the Evanston community, St. Paul’s Village, Evanston schools, and the Evanston community in general.

Mary E. Herring

Our Irma Tillery was a very talented musician. She accepted the position of Director of Music (at St. Andrew’s) in the 1970s, and devoted her life and love to all things musical. As a valuable member of the Committee of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE), those of musical capability organized and produced the UBE Episcopal Hymnal known as LEVAS (Lift Every Voice and Sing). She was gratified to see the hymnal become a part of our National Episcopal Library. At St. Andrew’s, she did an outstanding job helping the choirs, the clergy, the congregation, and the church-at-large become One as family in song. Thanks be to God!

Eleanor Bonner

I had the privilege of serving as a member of our St. Andrew’s Chancel Choir for about 25 years and Irma was our own dynamic personality and musician. We of the Choir so enjoyed our many musical ventures to support and assist diocesan group programs and services; our own St. Andrew’s Choir Jazz Vespers fundraiser orchestrated by Irma, etc. She generously shared her love for God, music, and our church life. We give thanks to God for her!

Mary Williams

I can never remember exactly which came first – Mrs. Tillery as my new music teacher at Losantiville School, or as the new Music Director and Organist at St. Andrew’s – the parish my mother and I had only recently joined in the mid-70’s. As the years have passed, Mrs. Tillery was part of so many of my memories and life events that I’d never be able to concisely recount all of them here. Remembering everything from the time I forgot my line in the school play to choosing music for my wedding, Mrs. Tillery will always be part of those “growing up” times for me. In more recent years, I can say it was truly an honor to sing with her as a fellow alto in the St. Andrew’s Gospel Choir and to serve together on several music committees for our beloved parish. I certainly miss those co-choral days but will remember that even after Mrs. Tillery could no longer sing regularly with the choirs, she still joined us heartily in song from her seat in the congregation. I still remember hearing her singing strongly from the pew the last Gospel Sunday a few weeks before her passing, and thinking fondly, “She’s still with us”.

Most of all, since Mrs. Tillery could be most discerning of vocal performance (or any type of music performance for that matter), I was very honored when at times she’d take my arm in a group conversation and say, “She was my student, you know.” I couldn’t help smiling and thinking to myself – “Wow, things must’ve gone okay – she still claims me!” Rest in God’s peace and be filled with heaven’s music, Mrs. Tillery. I’ll always be proud to have been “your student”!

Natalie L. Hayes

Irma Tillery was a humble and steadfast servant leader to her church, offering her stewardship of time in support of the mission of the church. A lifelong teacher, Irma was a historian, curator, and librarian of African American Music and a variety of other music styles. She had an intellectual curiosity and was an avid reader of church literature. She created learning opportunities for growth and development of the choir ministry and nurtured and encouraged St. Andrew’s youth to discern and offer their musical talents and gifts in the worship services, as well as to explore and participate in diocesan music experiences. Irma was a devoted, committed disciple sharing the good news of God’s teachings and love through the ministry of music. She gave of herself to others to transfigure them from narrowness to expansive excellence.

Linda Meador