Mrs. Nikolski (Angela Cave photo)
Mrs. Nikolski (Angela Cave photo)
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In Joan Nikolski's world, 13 houseguests make for an intimate Easter Sunday, a dozen phone calls from family members is a slow day - and quiet time gets boring.

Mrs. Nikolski, 78, the organist at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Schenectady, has always managed to be in "20 different places helping 30 different people," according to one of her 10 children.

She remembers the birthdays and whereabouts of all her children, her 18 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren (with one more on the way).

"Her father used to call her 'Split-Second,'" recalled Michele Dobski, Mrs. Nikolski's fourth child.

Indeed, in addition to being perpetually on-call to play the organ, Mrs. Nikolski hosts family gatherings, attends all of her grandchildren's concerts and sporting events and fills in as chauffeur and confidant. In her down time, she enjoys crossword puzzles, knitting, walking and playing the piano.

"I don't sit down until about 8:00 at night," the busy senior told The Evangelist. "I'm always wiry and doing things. I don't like to sit."

When she hurt her back two years ago, she needed extra convincing to stop riding her tractor mower and climbing stairs to do laundry. She refused to give up gardening, cooking or traveling across the country to visit relatives.

"My life has quieted down a lot," she said. Family "is what I live for. Sometimes people my age, all they talk about is their health."

As a child, Mrs. Nikolski dreamed of being a concert pianist. Her husband, Donald, achieved fame with his clarinet and Polish American band, the Don Nikolski Orchestra. He died in 1993.

"I always say, he was on stage," Mrs. Nikolski said, "and I was at the back of the church."

Mrs. Nikolski learned the piano at age nine and started playing the organ at St. Paul's at age 12 for a dollar a Mass. She worked for General Electric Co. after high school graduation and continued playing for every Catholic church in the city while raising children.

Two decades ago, she retired from 20 years at the Northeast Parent and Child Society. But she still plays at St. Paul's full-time, where she's been for 32 years, and accompanies soloists and a choral group.

Mrs. Nikolski remembers the days before Mass in English, but said "the most frustrating change is not to be able to have people sing in the choir. People are not committed to choirs anymore.

"A choir enhances the liturgy," she continued. "I feel [Mass-goers] like to sing along with a choir."

She's considered retiring, but something always stops her.

"I feel it's my other home," she said. "I am part of the Mass and I want to bring the music and the Mass together."

Janice Stewart, Mrs. Nikolski's fifth daughter and a singer, always chooses her mother to accompany her.

"There's something about my mom's ability to minister through music," Mrs. Stewart mused.