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August 24, 2011

Music to Our Ears: Songwriter Pens Hymn for The HSUS

Accomplished lyricist and Delaware pastor Carolyn Gillette writes hymn to celebrate animals

  • Pastor Carolyn Gillette with Molly. Photo: The Gillettes

  • Pastor Carolyn Gillette, a noted lyricist, wrote a hymn for The HSUS. Paul Hart/I Stock

  • Carolyn and Bruce Gillette are co-pastors of Limestone Presbyterian in Wilmington, Del. Photo: Caroyln Gillette

by Karen Louden Allanach

Gifts come in all shapes and sizes. When you are an accomplished lyricist, such as Pastor Carolyn Winfrey Gillette, that gift is often a hymn.

Gillette, co-pastor of Limestone Presbyterian Church in Delaware recently wrote a song, “O God, Your Creatures Fill the Earth,” for The Humane Society of the United States.

“We are very grateful for [The HSUS’] work, and I wanted to write this hymn as a gift to you as a way of saying thank you for the good work you do,” Gillette says. 

"This new hymn can be used for blessing of the animals services on St. Francis Day, October 4, or for other worship services celebrating God's creation," she says.

The hymn is included in The HSUS' St. Francis Day in a Box this year. It includes copyright permission for local church use.

Gillette has two books of published hymns: “Songs of Grace: New Hymns for God and Neighbor” (Upper Room Books, 2009) and “Gifts of Love: New Hymns for Today’s Worship” (Geneva Press, 2000). She has written nearly 200 hymns to an array of tunes. Her hymns have been sung by congregations in every state and in several other countries, according to Gillette. Noel Paul Stookey of the famous 60s folk group “Peter, Paul and Mary,” recorded a music video with Emmy-winner Pete Staman of Gillette’s hymn “O God, Our Words Cannot Express,” which she penned on September 11, 2001.

“Hymns help us to express our faith,” Gillette says. “They also help us to learn the faith. If you ask Christians to define the theological term ‘grace,’ many of them would have a difficult time doing so. but if you ask them to sing ‘Amazing Grace,’ many of them can relate very well to—and understand—what this popular hymn is saying.”

Animals in our family and faith

Growing up in Bridgewater, Va. and Hagerstown, Md., Gillette had pet cats, while her husband had a dog in his youth. He also carries fond memories of an uncle who was a veterinarian in Kansas when calves were born on a farm. The Gillettes raised their three children with dogs, hermit crabs, hamsters and a few snakes over the years. Their current dog, Molly, came from a rescue group in Delaware.

Gillette reflects on caring for animals as a practice of faith.

“In the creation story, we read that God told the first people to ‘have dominion’ over the earth. This has often been misinterpreted to mean ‘have power over.’ The word really describes a kind of stewardship, or taking care of, the Earth. Psalm 24 tells us, ‘The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it...’ As people of faith, we believe that all creation was created by God and still belongs to God; we are simply caretakers. This creation includes all of the wonderful animals that fill our world with beauty and help us along our way. Being stewards means that we have a responsibility to care for the environment so all life can flourish.”

Blessing the animals

The husband and wife team of Carolyn and Bruce Gillette shepherd their congregation of about 500 members in the suburbs of Wilmington.

For five years, Limestone Presbyterian Church has hosted a blessing of the animals in celebration of St. Francis Day. And they do not miss any details. Limestone has a 5 p.m. service for dogs and their owners, followed by the 5:30 service for cats and their owners. Other animals and their owners (including plush toy animals) are invited to come to whichever service they want.

 “At each service we have a nice time of informal fellowship meeting each other’s pets,” Gillette says. “Then we sing a couple of hymns, offer a scripture reading and prayers and offer a blessing for each of the animals and those who care for them.” The church is also environmentally proactive. Three years ago, Limestone had 180 solar panels installed on the church roof “as a way of saving money and caring for creation,” Gillette says.

Love and music

Gillette grew up in the United Methodist church. Some of her earliest memories with music are from age-3, “standing on a church pew next to my parents, holding a hymnal and singing,” she says. Piano lessons began at age 7 and continued through her teenage years. “I began to sense a call to ministry when I was in high school, as I enjoyed being active in the church and realized that I had gifts and a passion for serving God (and God’s world) through the church.”

Gillette went on to UMC-related Lebanon Valley College and Princeton Seminary.

“She would probably still be a Methodist except for falling in love with a Presbyterian at Princeton Seminary,” says her husband Bruce. Carolyn went on to become ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) in 1986. The couple has co-pastored Limestone for the past seven years, and previously serviced churches in New Jersey. “It has been a joy to serve together here,” Carolyn Gillette says.

She wrote her first hymn text in 1998, and now has nearly 200 hymns to her credit.

The United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, Church World Service, National Council of Churches and others all feature Gillette’s hymns on their national websites.

“I still remember many of the songs I learned in children’s choir and youth choir. These are not just words on a page; they are part of who I am,” Gillette says. “I hope that the songs I write can help people to understand, express and be inspired to live out their faith.”

Karen L. Allanach is associate director of faith outreach for The Humane Society of the United States.

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