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Music at St. John's


SteepleThe music foundation of St. John's has a colorful and diverse past, but early records are very sketchy. The first church building was consecrated on 10 November 1837, but as Joe Jefferds states in his book on the history of St. Johns, "we shall probably never know, but here appears to be reason to believe that our parish could properly be called Kanawha Parish and that, technically, it may date from about 1788".

The first mention of an organist in any record extant is in December of 1858, when an endeavor was made to find out how much an organist would cost. Twenty-five dollars was raised to employ Mrs. F. Norvell for a year beginning on 15 November 1859. The first mention of any organ is in 1866, when the new organ, purchased at Covington, Kentucky on 20 September 1866, cost $400, and was installed on 7 November 1866. The old one, quite possibly the first, fell victim to a flood and vandalism when the Federal troops of the Civil War took over St. John's as Quartermaster's headquarters. Records of 15 April 1873 say that a boy was engaged to "blow the organ" for fifty cents per week. During the early 1880's Miss Alice Jeffries was the organist and received one dollar per Sunday, and thirty cents was paid to the boy who "blowed the organ".

OrganWork on the new church was fraught with delays, with ground broken on All Saints Day 1883, the cornerstone laid on 28 April 1884, and the main church building barely finished enough on 8 March 1890 to be used. The service of consecration for the completed church was held, finally, on 9 June 1901. It was in 1890 that a contract with Henry Pilcher & Sons was made for the new church's first organ, costing $1,825. Records indicate that it had eighteen stops. Photos show that it had an intricately stenciled pipe facade which faced the nave. Before it was electrified it was pumped by boys of the parish, who entered the chamber through an exterior door on the Quarrier Street side of the church. The door recess can still be seen, although long ago filled in with stone.

Mrs. Curtis Dawley served as organist for awhile without compensation. Then Mr. J. W. Barrington of Meriden, Connecticut was engaged as organist and choirmaster on 1 March 1891. In November of 1892 he resigned, stating that, "...it seems impossible to bring together a choir suitable to sing necessary music." He continued to serve until after Easter 1893.

In the fall of 1895, Mr. Frederick George Sallick was contracted to be organist and choirmaster for one year. The contract stipulated that, 'he shall take the musical services on all Sundays, major festivals, principal feasts during the year, and funerals; take charge of the Sunday School music and give musical once a week to the Missions at St. Luke's and St. Matthew's. The minor festivals and feasts are left to his interest and option--that he shall organize and manage the choir under the direction and superintendence of the Rector; that he may have one month's vacation during the year and one organ recital for his own benefit if he desires." Mrs. Joseph Ruffner raised the money personally to pay Mr. Sallick.

JesusOne hundred years ago, on Easter Day 5 April 1896, St. John's had its first vested choir, which was introduced by Mr. Sallick at the afternoon service.

Parishioner Cornelius Estill, who developed into a gifted musician, was organist after this. He was not organist long when he accepted a post in a New York City Episcopal church. There is no written record of  what church he went to, unfortunately. Apparently, he returned to give periodic organ recitals. He died young, we do know that; and a plaque in his memory was placed in the console recess by his parents and his successor, J. Henry Francis.

In 1899 Mr. Percy Harris offered to play the organ for the evening service, free of charge, in consideration of being allowed to conduct the vested choir and to have envelopes distributed in the church for contributions to the church music library from time to time, and to have the privilege of giving a recital of sacred music and to collect at such recitals a voluntary contribution to himself. The proposal was accepted.

In 1902, J. Henry Francis, a native of England, was brought to St. John's from a post in New England as organist and choirmaster by the Rector, Dr. Robert Douglas Roller. Dr. Francis started the men and boys choir, and later the Junior choir of young girls. He was known and respected widely throughout the community. Native Charlestonian James Litton, director of the American Boys Choir and organist of St. Bartholomew's Church in New York, was one of his organ students. On 11 October 1942, the congregation recognized the fortieth anniversary of Dr. Francis. It was said: "...If you were to pick the most significant fact out of these forty years, it would undoubtedly be that six hundred and thirty-seven boys and men have been in the choir ranks during this period..."  Dr. Francis retired on 1 September 1945, and was made "Musical Director Emeritus". He received an honorarium and a pension. Dr. Cecil Adams, a prominent dentist in Charleston, as well as an accomplished musician, succeeded Dr. Francis as choirmaster, with Elizabeth Reese Johnson appointed organist. Both came to St. John's as a team from the First Christian Church.

In 1944, the Kanawha Chapter of the American Guild of Organist was founded at St. John's, and the organization used St. John's as their headquarters for many years.


In 1940 the leadership of junior choirs of girls was separated from the Senior Choir of men, boys, and women by vestry action. Eleanor Day became, then, the first independent director of the girl's choirs, then June Cason, followed by Mary Jean Eldridge Barnes. Then, under Guy Owen Baker, who came to St. John's in 1968--the only choirmaster to work with the St. Teresa and St. Cecilia choirs since J. Henry Francis; the St. Cecilia Choir of high school aged girls sang in the Bethlehem Chapel of Washington Cathedral in 1970. His work with them was short-lived due to his other interests, and organist Brenda Maurice (Vanderford), directed them until the latter part of the 1970s. Major changes and an upheaval within the parish, resulting in a host of families leaving St. John's, took the children from the choir system, and the choirs disbanded. A boy choir--St. David's was attempted periodically, but it, too, fell victim to the changes. In very recent years new parish growth is seeing more children. Judith Arnold, who came to us in 1995 as the new Director of Religious Education, and who is also an accomplished musician, and Gigi Janeshek, director of bell ringers, are both working with our parish children's musical development.

But back to 1945: The men and boys choir stopped under Cecil Adams, and a "professional"  choir of adults developed. The choral ideal and the music literature evolved away from a Victorian/Edwardian Anglican choral tradition toward classic "oratorio" literature and less liturgical practice as was the custom in that era with what was then called "formal low church". The choir of the 1950s, and up into the early 1960s, which was made up almost entirely of dramatic full-voiced soloists, became renown for its equally dramatic oratorio presentations. Also, although at the time major churches in the valley had paid quartets as section leaders and soloists, the choir of St. John's was the only paid choir in the city. Adams had two organists during his tenure, Elizabeth Reese Johnson and Lila Belle Brooks. Johnson became organist of the First Presbyterian Church around 1950.

On 1 July 1954, Geoffrey Hobday, an Englishman, and the new conductor of the Charleston Symphony, received the title of organist and choirmaster, but soon directed the choir only. Walter Avis, who had served so faithfully as organist for the girls choirs for may years, became principal organist, and served until retiring in 1968. Avis was succeeded by Brenda Maurice (Vanderford), who has held the post as principal organist since that time. Hobday was succeeded as choirmaster in 1964 by Dr. Thomas Wickstrom, head of public school music for West Virginia schools. Following Wickstrom another Charleston Symphony conductor was hired in 1966 as choirmaster, Charles Schiff. Schiff was succeeded by Guy Owen Baker in 1968, who resigned in 1974. The "symphonic choral" era, which began in the late 1940s in attitude and musical direction, worlds apart from the Anglican choral tradition, yet glorious in its own fashion, came to an end in 1974.

Ninteen sixty-eight was also the year payment to choir members stopped. As a result, the choir lost many long-time professional singers who refused to sing without pay. For awhile, under Baker, the choir was supplemented with his voice students. That stopped when he left. Thus began a new fresh growing era for the choir, which styled itself the St. Ambrose Choir. The only long-time choir member to receive a stipend was James G. Wallace, much loved by the choir, and who became an invaluable music assistant.

During the same year the Lewis & Hitchcock Organ Company, the company which was an early installation sub-contractor for the Skinner Organ Company, and which installed our Skinner, and which also maintained it thereafter, was contracted to rebuild the organ. Some chests were re-leathered and pipes cleaned. Two stops were added, but they soon proved to be unsatisfactory and out of character with the Skinner and were removed from this restoration. Also, what work the Lewis & Hitchcock Company performed proved inadequate and the Skinner "limped along" until 1991 when the organ's first major and full restoration process began.

David Morton, parishioner since 1962, and an experienced choral director, became choirmaster in August, 1974. His expertise in English and American Cathedral music took St. John's into the mainstream of the rich Anglican choral tradition. Lyric straight-tone singing conducive to chant forms and the literature of the Anglican choral ideal was developed. All of this was done during a trying time within the Episcopal Church at large and at St. John's itself, with new trial liturgies and precarious national trend toward fluctuating musical tastes. In spite of this, the Anglican choral foundation became the fundamental music base. Evensong in the cathedral tradition was initiated during this time after decades of neglect. Morton's two-year tenure as choirmaster was highlighted with the St. Ambrose Choir singing for the main service in Washington Cathedral on West Virginia Day, 6 September 1976, his last service with them as choirmaster. The St. Ambrose Choir was the first West Virginia church choir to sing during a principal service at the Cathedral. David Johnson, a Charleston choral director, followed David Morton, but left after a very brief duration.

Brenda Vanderford, a native of Richmond, Virginia, Associate Professor of Music at West Virginia State College, and who came to St. John's as organist in 1968, assumed the combined post of organist and choirmaster in 1977. In November of 1977, Brenda played a recital on the Great Organ of Washington Cathedral. St. John's celebrated another "first" when she became the first organist holding a post in West Virginia to play a recital at Washington Cathedral. Brenda's superb musicianship and credentials--degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Northwestern University, a Fulbright for European organ study, and membership in the Association of Anglican Musicians--have seen the choir and choral services flourish. She has built upon the Anglican choral foundation laid by David Morton, and has carried forth so successfully that Evensongs have now become community events where people of all faiths come to hear our music. Also, through her leadership, the Office of Compline and the sung Easter Vigil have become a part of our worship life. In 1993, Brenda was honored and recognized for having given 25 years of faithful service. Mary Ruth Boyd, an organist known and respected in the Charleston area for many years, and past Dean of the Kanawha Chapter of the American Guild of Organist, joined Brenda in 1980 as the Assistant Organist.

The large choral library of St. John's, with music dating prior to the turn of the century, is remarkably rich and superb. It joins the Skinner with them both being the most valuable treasures of this parish church.

Since 1927, the Skinner organ has met all of the needs of those diverse music traditions. And now that it is ready to serve the decades ahead, St. John's can look forward to the continuation and expansion of a rich and colorful music tradition.


Appreciation is extended to Joseph Crosby Jefferds, Jr. for his kind permission to quote directly portions of his book, The History of St. John's Episcopal Church, Charleston, West Virginia, offering much information regarding the early days of our parish; and to others who provided valuable recollection and observation.