St. Paul’s Episcopal Church has been a beloved place of worship in Flint since it’s establishment in 1839 by Reverend Daniel Brown. Its current building Downtown, located at the corner of Saginaw and Third Streets, was built in 1872 and has remained a magnificent piece of the city. It is “a church with a heart in the heart of the city” and that heart is filled with beautiful music and song. “Song is an important part of worship and a good way to involve everyone,” says Music Director, Holly Richardson. “Everyone feels more connected when we pray or sing together and there is so much joy that comes from singing.”
Under Richardson’s leadership, St. Paul’s music program is alive and well, boasting a 16-member Chancel Choir, a newly revived Handbell Choir and traveling, all-inclusive, non-denominational Gospel Choir. Backing the choirs and worships is the Dalton Memorial Organ – the biggest keyboard instrument north of Detroit. “We have an endowment to maintain it,” says Richardson. “One of my main roles here is protecting and preserving this magnificent organ.” The organ is truly one of a kind and it fills the space of the church with a sound that reaches heaven. “Matthew Benkert is our organist. He is a graduate of Central Michigan University’s organ performance school,” she adds. “He’s so very good.”
The 11-member Handbell Choir plays 12-14 times per year during regular service with the addition this year of chimes. In the spring, the Handbell Choir will take part in the Peggy VanVlack Memorial Bell Ring at Faith Lutheran Church in Grand Blanc where nearly 100 handbells will play together. “It’s absolutely amazing and beautiful,” Richardson says.
The Gospel Choir began as a community group at Christ Episcopal Church and when it closed, St. Paul’s absorbed the congregation and choir. Led by Director Rafael McDaniel, the Gospel Choir is unique as it reflects St. Paul’s mission of being all-inclusive – open to everyone. “Our belief is in inclusivity, not exclusivity,” explains Richardson. “All are welcome at our church – people of every gender and identity. Our choirs are for everyone.” The Gospel Choir often travels, singing to different congregations throughout the state. In December, they will travel to Charlevoix and next spring will visit and perform in California.
“Everyone feels more connected when we pray or sing together and there is so much joy that comes from singing.”
Holly Richardson, Music
At St. Paul’s, the air is always filled with soaring voices – and that is not all. Richardson also runs the “Music in the Heart of the City” concert series which offers professional musicians a chance to play in the church’s one-of-a-kind acoustic space. “The concert series is a secular program open to anyone who wants to come hear great music,” she shares. “We don’t want to keep this organ or this space to ourselves. Come in and hear world-class musicians.” Typically taking place on Sundays at 4pm, the concert series will bring in Organist Gail Archer in January, will feature the world premier of “Dragonfly” by Bill Witham with flautist Townes Osborn Miller in February, and another great performance by Miller scheduled in March. “The performances are never the same and that’s part of the charm,” says Richardson. “I always walk away completely in awe.”
In the month of December, the choirs of St. Paul’s will perform in “Lessons in Carols” at the Linden Presbyterian Church on the 22nd, and on Christmas Eve at 10:30pm, the choirs will perform a congregational carol sing before the 11pm mass. It is a magical experience that embraces the true meaning and feeling of Christmas. “You are going to want to be here at 10:30pm,” says Richardson. “It really is an amazing night.”
St. Paul’s has always been a treasured part of the city, not only for its architecture but also for its congregation, inclusion, family atmosphere and joyful music. The only prerequisite to be in the choir is a love of song. They will work with anyone who wants to sing. “We have a woman who has a master’s degree in voice from Manhattan School of Music singing with others who have never sung. That’s fine! That’s what we are here for,” says Richardson. “We are here to worship through music and if you want to join us in song, you are welcome.”
For information on music performance at St. Paul’s, visit stpaulschurchflint.com.
Photography by Kayce McClure