For its first 35 years, the singing at Grace Church was led mostly by volunteer quartettes or double-quartettes of adult males. On occasion, a volunteer group of men and women would emerge, yet disband after a few months. The role of these groups, for the most part, was to sing hymns loudly enough so that other parishioners would be motivated to sing as well. None of the singers wore robes, as vested choirs were controversial, and often were viewed as "high church". The "Oxford Movement" in England fueled the passionate high church-low church controversy in America. In 1841, Rev. Dr. Francis Hawkes in Flushing, NY had established the first vested choir in America but it cost him the election to become a bishop. A few years later, a rector was driven from the Diocese of Ohio because he established a vested choir in his parish in Columbus. In 1865 at Grace Church, Bishop Eastburn and Rector Peter Steenstra removed flowers from the communion table at Grace during a prayer - as flowers then were viewed as a symbol of "high church" practices. Fast forward to 1889.
In his first 15 years at Grace, the Rev. George Shinn had several times requested, to no avail, that the Vestry authorize a vested choir. However, just before Christmas of 1889, Shinn decided to try again. In a lengthy plea to the Vestry, Shinn wrote: "... At one time I had almost concluded never to revive the subject of the choir again, but I am not willing to let my disappointment stand in the way of the prosperity of the parish – and as having to think that some of the previous opposition to the measure arose from misunderstanding – I very earnestly ask that the whole subject of a vested choir be again considered. [Shinn proposed a one year trial of a vested choir of men and boys, to begin on Easter, 1890] ...In order to disabuse the minds of any persons who may think such a choir involves some partizan and offensive changes in our modes of worship I would beg to say...that I contemplate no such ceremonies or anything that will destroy the simplicity of our present services....You can make [vested choirs] low church or high church or anything else, just as you can make quartettes so....One of the main reasons I wish a vested choir of men and boys is that it will publicly awaken new life in the parish, first by interesting boys and men, and then by spreading such interest to others, and drawing them here, particularly to the Sunday night services – In other parishes just these results have followed, and I am considerably mortified that Grace Church is not in the forefront of all good things - If other parishes have found substantial benefit from using such choirs – why should not we make the experiment, instead of keeping far in the rear of progressive parishes?... I want to have such beauty and enthusiastic services that no one will want to stay away from them....Your friend and rector, Geo. W. Shinn."
The Vestry voted "Yes". The new choir practiced for three months, and robes were purchased. Thus, thirty-three boys and thirteen men sang on Easter Sunday, 1890 - 125 years ago. Both Easters were on April 20, how cool is that!
The "experiment" worked so well that by June, 1892, the choirmaster wrote to the Vestry begging that the choir be granted a "vacation" of three Sundays in August, as they had sung, without a break, Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings, for 26 consecutive months.
In Grace's weekly bulletin of January 22, 1893, Rev. Shinn wrote: "Note how the people respond and sing now in the services. Great improvement over the old silent way."
Last week, we asked: "Which former member of the Grace Church Choir currently is an Overseer of Harvard University?" The answer is Lynn Chang. Lynn sang in our choir (and played his violin) in the 1960's. In 1991, he played at Grace as a fund-raiser for the re-building of our organ. Lynn teaches violin at MIT, BU, Boston Conservatory and the New England Conservatory. In 2010, Lynn Chang was the violin soloist at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo.
Who was the well-known musician, whose mother was, for three years, Grace's organist/choirmaster? Hint: she is buried at St. Mary's, Newton Lower Falls.
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