A Partial History of the Swedenborgian Church Choir
by Nan Paget
As a member of the S.F. Swedenborgian choir since 1957 (with an absence between 1973 and 1986 when I lived in Rockport, Massachusetts, and sang with an Episcopal choir there), I can claim to be a default or de facto historian of the choir.
I can suppose that our choir did not exist prior to 1950, when our Book of Worship was issued, including 400 hymns. I know from church records that we invited Jean Barnard from Mill Valley to serve as organist in 1950. Jean was the daughter of Dorothy Boericke Symmes, a Swedenborgian woman who lived in New York but often visited her twin sister Ruth White at the Garden of Allah in Mill Valley. Jean, however, declined, as she was a member and organist at the Mill Valley Community Church. She later became the first woman council member and first woman mayor of Mill Valley.
Then presumably a search took place which turned up Sir Walter Bates, a retired director of the Royal Toronto Singers of Canada, which had toured Europe. . Dr. Bates began to establish the adult choir and also a children's choir, and served as organist-director until his death in May 1955. His longtime associate, Miss Jane Sugden, then became director, with the accompaniment of Mrs.Ethel Lindquist as organist.
Miss Jane was asked to recruit choir members from the surrounding neighborhood. It was at this point that I came into the choir. I had been married at the church in January 1951 (as my parents were in 1926). and came from my nearby home on Baker St. in September 1957, looking for a church which would expose my children to Christian teachings. I came to the 11 a.m. service and sang the alto part along with the hymns. After the service, Miss Jane came up to me and asked if I had ever thought of singing with a choir. She also offered free vocal training to me and other new choristers.
Others from the neighborhood who became my friends were Phyllis Bosley, a soprano who continued to sing there for many years, and Muriel Lucelle, a fellow alto, who lived near me on Clay St.. Both had children in the children's choir, which numbered about 21. The minimum age was supposedly 5, but my three-year-old daughter Caroline was accepted and sang a small solo in the Christmas program.
Dr. Bates had created a children's service, which was printed in 1957 after his death. It was a service lasting about 20 minutes in the church, after which the children went to their Sunday School classes. Dr. Bates also acquired a considerable musical library.
The adult choir consisted of about 8 to 12 members, all amateurs except for our bass, Harry Bathgate, who was paid a small stipend. We held rehearsals on Thursday nights, sometimes preceded by a church supper which Miss Jane prepared with assistance.
Our choir was fairly well known in San Francisco, and we were twice invited to sing at Easter morning service at the cross atop Mt. Davidson. Also, in 1970 when our first World Swedenborgian Convention was held in London, a lifelong dream of our longtime minister Othmar Tobisch, our choir under Miss Jane formed the core of the choir which sang at the convention, held in Albert Hall. We held fundraisers to help choir members with travel costs, and sold plum jam made from my tree's bumper crop the year before.
Miss Jane also held the position of church secretary. She lived in a small ground floor apartment on Clay St. about two blocks from the church. Later her building was to be remodeled and she moved into the parish house upstairs, though this was not really legal. She retired from her position during the 70's and moved to the home of a choir member, Duane Wiesen, in Pacifica, where she spent her declining years, passing away in 1987.
My first husband, Carl Hepp, passed away in 1970. In fall of 1972, I became engaged to Fred Paget, whom I met in the Stanford Hot Jazz Society and had dated 22 years before.. We were married on his 50th birthday, June 24, 1973, in my brother's garden in San Anselmo, by our then Swedenborgian minister, Rev. Erwin Reddekopp. I invited the choir to sing at our wedding, Organist Royetta Rule played a small portable organ, Miss Jane directed the choir in three numbers, and I joined them. My daughter Marjorie's madrigal singers sang, and I came down the aisle (garden path) to the strains of High Society, my favorite jazz tune, on an old 78 rpm phonograph record. Later my nephew Jim's soft rock band played and we danced in the driveway. It was a musical afternoon with a wedding interlude. Then we drove back to Rockport.
In Rockport I attended St. Mary's Episcopal Church and sang with their choir, which had several members employed at the Fisk Organ Works in Gloucester. There were three organist-directors during my 13 years there, the last one being David Pike who was a Fisk employee. Charles Fisk created tracker organs, a classical older style of organ.
Fred and I both retired from our jobs in June of 1985, and began to plan our return to Mill Valley, where I had kept my house, now rented. We returned in August 1986, driving across the county in our truck towing a U-Haul with some furniture. In September we drove back to Rockport, where we finalized the move, using Mayflower and another company to bring our considerable household goods, while we drove across again in the truck and a camper filled with Fred's orchid plants. After getting somewhat settled, I again joined the choir at the Swedenborgian church.
There had been changes. The choir, now directed by Charles Gammon, now consisted of three section leaders-- soprano, tenor, and bass-- and three amateur altos including myself. We sat at the front by the organ but did not use the choir loft.
Later organists were Ed Koch and Garrett Collins, plus some interim people. The choir began to grow again. Under Garrett Collins we embarked on a program to choose and purchase a new organ, so held many fundraisers. Later, we had the choir loft replaced by a beautiful new one.
We continue to use the new organ, and have established new traditions. The old rehearsal on Thursday night is gone, as it was a hardship for choir members scattered about the Bay Area. We now have our four section leaders, plus four to eight amateur singers. Under Charles Calhoun, we still hold our Christmas concert, and are beginning now to practice new music for the coming holiday season and concert on December 7.
As a choir member now for 50 years, including the 13 years I spent in Rockport, I feel very fortunate to have enjoyed the experience and exposure to fine music over so many years, as well as the professional direction by many talented directors. I have been very blessed. Please forgive the many personal references in this history, as my own life has been so closely entwined with this choir and this church.
Nan Paget, November 3, 2008