Music for everyone: St. Paul UCC celebrates 30 years of concerts

News-DemocratMarch 19, 2014 

St. Paul United Church of Christ in Belleville was ahead of its time in 1984, when it opened its doors to people in the community for religious and secular concerts.

"My philosophy has always been, 'What better place to celebrate the arts than in a church?'" said Norbert Krausz, 67, of St. Louis, who was director of music and organist at the time.

The following year, church member Adele Ross, now deceased, donated $1,500 in seed money to establish the St. Paul Fine Arts Series.

"It came with the stipulation that all the concerts would be free," said Sandy Wagner, 62, of Millstadt, who now chairs the planning committee.

"(Ross) wanted fine arts to be available to everyone. She didn't want to discriminate and make it to where only people who could afford tickets could come."

The church is celebrating the series' 30th anniversary with a concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday. It will feature piano, organ, harp, handbell and singing performances by past and present music and choral directors.

They include Krausz, who served the church off and on from 1970 to 2013. He will play the sanctuary's 49-rank Schantz pipe organ, installed in 1991.

"I'll play two organ compositions," he said. "One is based on a hymn tune called 'Rejoice, the Lord is King.' I chose it because it showcases the many voices and colors of the pipe organ."

Another well-known organist, Janet Spencer, of Belleville, will play a George Shearing arrangement of "Amazing Grace" and a prelude by Baroque period Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude.

"(The church has) one of the finest pipe organs on this side of the river," she said. "It's just really a lovely thing."

Also on the program is Mary Lu Bretsch on handbells, Charles Peery on harp and organ and Dan Fry on piano. Amy Garces and Osceola Mueller will sing.

Fry inherited involvement with the Fine Arts Series when he became the church's director of music and organist last September. He sees it as a good outreach tool.

"It offers an opportunity for a wide variety of programs," said Fry, 41, of St. Louis. "The concerts are freewill (donations are welcome but not required), and that's an important part of the philosophy of the series."

St. Paul hosts five to seven concerts a season. In the early days, they were narrated by St. Louis radio veteran Tom Calhoun and later Mary Phelan, KMOV news anchor who was killed in a car accident.

Performers have ranged from soprano Christine Brewer to Red Lehr and the St. Louis Rivermen, Ambassadors of Harmony barbershop chorus to St. Paul's Cathedral men's and boy's choir from London.

"The Kiev Symphony Orchestra and Chorus came here twice (from Ukraine), and they stayed with members of our congregation," Wagner said. "We learned so much from those folks. Things that we take for granted, as far as churches were concerned, they were denied by the Soviet Union."

The orchestra's visit was made possible by Krausz's friendship with its conductor, who formerly lived in Florida.

Church members took the singers and musicians to see Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, which led to a moving experience.

"When they went in, they wept," Wagner said. "They had been denied that kind of beauty, that kind of space for worship."

The chorus then got permission to sing a few songs on the cathedral's pulpit steps, drawing a crowd of about 200 people.

"It was so beautiful," Wagner said. "It was like being in heaven."

Another Fine Arts Series highlight was a performance by the prestigious St. Olaf Choir from St. Olaf College in Minnesota in the early 1990s.

"They were going to be so popular, we had to hand out tickets so everyone would be sure to have a seat," Krausz said.

"Then we were still getting requests from people who wanted to come, so we asked permission and moved the concert to St. Peter's Cathedral in downtown Belleville."

At a glance

What: St. Paul United Church of Christ Fine Arts Series 30th anniversary concert

Where: St. Paul sanctuary, 115 W. B St. in Belleville

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Admission: Free (offering will be collected)

Information: Call 618-233-1122 or visit stpaulucc.org

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