PROVO — An Episcopal congregation in Utah County is reaching out to its neighbors at BYU and in the community through music.
The congregation of fewer than 100 at St. Mary's Episcopal Church helps the county's homeless through the Food and Care Coalition, and to those addicted by opening its doors for 12-step meetings. However, the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook realized that creating a venue for musicians would be an additional "win-win" service opportunity for his and other congregations.
In medieval England, churches with red doors indicated that they were sanctuaries for criminals. The red door outside St. Mary's, 50 W. 200 North in Provo, indicates that the church is a safe place for all, including aspiring musicians, Father Van Hook said.
He and St. Mary's full-time organist Ruth Eldredge reached out to former and current students at Brigham Young University to let them perform or practice at the church, regardless of their major or profession.
"I think music is one of the most practical ways possible to reach out to the community and to connect with the community," said Eldredge, a member of the LDS Church.
In August, Father Van Hook visited BYU organ professor Don Cook and asked if St. Mary's could host beginning organ students. This was the first time in more than 20 years as a professor that a leader of a non-LDS congregation had approached Cook for the opportunity, rather than the other way around, he said.
Two of the college's 16 students accepted in the fall, although neither were organ performance majors. Natalie Durham, a piano performance major, said the experience was one she would repeat.
"The role of organist in the meeting was certainly one of being a leader. There wasn't a conductor at all, so it was all up to me as the organist to lead. The congregation actually followed my phrasings! That was really exciting," Durham said in an email. "Everyone was extremely surprised to hear that it was my first time ever playing organ for a congregation. Several individuals told me they hoped I would come back again."
This partnership may seem unusual given that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up 98 percent of the county's religious adherents, according to City-Data. Catholic members make up 1.1 percent of those who are affiliated with a religious congregation in Utah County, with the remaining 0.9 percent of the religious belonging to those of other faiths.
The high density of members of the LDS faith is precisely why there is a need to reach out to other congregations to get professional experience. With three full-time and two part-time professional organist positions in the LDS Church, most organ performance majors at BYU assume they will spend their careers playing for another congregation.
This was the case for Andrew Unsworth early in his career.
He played the organ at Catholic and Lutheran churches while growing up in upstate New York and majored in organ performance at BYU. While earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he played for Baptist, Lutheran and Catholic churches and was the BYU organ scholar at the Cathedral of the Madeleine for two years.
“It really opened my eyes to all the good that those churches do in the community,” he said.
After completing graduate work, he returned to the Cathedral of the Madeleine as a full-time organist for five years. He came to appreciate the commitment and passion of other religions and the time and love they put into their worship music.
"The idea to make something beautiful and to offer it to God, that's something that I really admire and respect," Unsworth said.
He credits his current position as Tabernacle organist for the LDS Church to the practical experience he gained while playing for other churches.
“I don’t think I’d have my job on Temple Square if I hadn’t been a cathedral organist,” he said. “Ultimately it’s been a positive experience for me in which I have grown spiritually and musically.”
Student organists are just the tip of the iceberg for BYU performers at St. Mary's. Eldredge has roots at BYU, where she completed her undergraduate degree and taught for eight years. Now she spends part of her time scouting out current or former BYU students who are willing to sing or play for St. Mary's church. Sometimes these positions are paid and other times students are volunteers. So far, violists, oboists, vocalists, cellists and those who play the French horn have assisted in liturgies.
A six-person interfaith choir just wrapped up six weeks of performing at St. Mary's. Logan Bradford was among those who performed.
Rehearsals and singing at the service were held right before Bradford's LDS sacrament meeting, which he said was an ideal way for him to prepare to worship. He said he was impressed by how welcoming the leaders and members of the congregation are.
"We more or less kind of became temporary members of their congregation. They grew to love us and we grew to love them," he said.
In addition to giving musicians a way to gain experience and earn a little money, the performances provide an interfaith experience that Eldredge says is vital for coming together as a community.
"You don't have to look very far to see (that) not every spire in Utah County is an LDS Church spire," she said.
For Eldredge, the musical exchange provides an opportunity for understanding other religions in the community. "This isn't an us (vs.) them. This is an us."
In addition to bringing in worship music, Father Van Hook hopes to attract aspiring musicians for recitals and performances. St. Mary's became one of few venues for musical performance after the destruction of the Provo Tabernacle and its subsequent conversion into an LDS temple. He admits he is not a musician, but said he has been told that the acoustics in the chapel are ideal for performances.
“It’s a sharing a gifts, not a matter of belief,” Father Van Hook said.
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