Classically trained singer trades the stage for the pulpit

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Pastor Susan Ohl of the St. John’s United Church of Christ in Egg Harbor City is a classically trained singer. R.J. Liberatore Jr. photo.

EGG HARBOR CITY – When St. John’s United Church of Christ Pastor Susan Ohl delivers her weekly heavenly message on Sunday mornings, she does so with what some would call a heavenly voice.

Ohl, who has served the 110-member congregation for the past 2½ years, is a trained classical vocalist who performed across the area before receiving the call to preach.

“I have always said my greatest love in life is music and God,” said Ohl, 57, who is originally from Philadelphia. “Even as a teenager, I used to say that.”

Ohl attended the Little Flower High School for Catholic Girls in Philadelphia before studying music at the Philadelphia Academy of the Arts. She performed professionally at many places after graduating.

“I was never motivated by money, but by serving people,” Ohl said.

She feels the same way as 17th-century composer Franz Joseph Haydn, who wanted to use his music to help people escape life’s troubles for a few hours during his performance.

Ohl enjoyed singing so much that she founded the Pennsylvania Theater Works, a group that staged a wide range of different types of performances for crowds of all sizes.

“We performed operas,” she said. “We performed plays and a lot of concerts.”

There was one role, however, that Ohl longed for.

“I wanted the roll of Dora Bella in Mozart’s ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’,” she said. “It’s a funny opera. I waited my whole life for that opera and when I got it I said, ‘I did it and that ends that.’”

After a few years as a reporter for the Shenandoah Evening Herald, Ohl found her calling and entered the Evangelical Seminary in Myerstown, Pa.

“I had been at the paper for two or three years when my editor asked me to call the Pentagon,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Do I really need to be calling the Pentagon?’”

She did a lot of praying and soul searching as a result.

“I truly believe that my mission in life is to help Christians become connected to God,” she said.

After serving at several churches along the Route 78 corridor, Ohl decided she wanted to move to South Jersey.

“I love it here,” she said. “Growing up in Philadelphia, this is our back yard. My father would take us to the shore for several weeks each summer.”

She enjoys South Jersey culture, the proximity to Philadelphia and, of course, the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

When Ohl saw an opening for a pastor at St. John’s, she quickly sent out her profile, a pastor’s resume, to church leaders.

“When I drove by this church,” she said, “I looked at the outside of the building and hoped that they really wanted me.”

She also wanted to pastor at a church with a pipe organ that she could play during services.

“And St. John’s has a pipe organ,” she said while pointing to the 1943 M. P. Moller pipe organ built in Hagerstown, Md.

After meeting with church leaders, Ohl received the position.

“St. John’s hadn’t had a full-time pastor in a long time,” she said.

But the congregation had a full-time pastor in Ohl, who said she seems to always find a way serve at churches that need a renewal.

“A lot of our committees didn’t meet regularly,” she said. “But they do now.”

Ohl and a member of the congregation are studying to become English-as-a-second-language instructors to lead lessons in the church’s five, second-floor classrooms.

Ohl is also pleased to be a part of St. John’s 150th anniversary celebration, which will come later this year.

St. John’s shared a facility with a church on Philadelphia Avenue when it opened in 1862, Ohl said, before building its first building on Washington Avenue a few years later. The congregation constructed its current building in 1931.

Ohl is careful not to mix the theater and Church.

“I go to church to be connected with God,” she said.

However, her stage training has helped her deliver passionate and meaningful sermons from the pulpit.

“They say they like the way I project my voice,” she said.

After all, a heavenly voice is meant to deliver a heavenly message.

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