FAITH IN ACTION FOR 250 YEARS

ST. PETER'S CHOIR TODAY

When Harold Gilbert left in 1960, his successors have attempted to maintain a strong tradition of Anglican choral music that Gilbert established in his many years as organist and choirmaster.

The first was Joseph Parsells (1960-63), followed by Albert Robinson, who retired in 1971.

Charles Callahan, (right) a graduate of the Curtis Institute, succeeded Robinson, and served as chorimaster/organist from 1971-76.

His choir (below) is pictured in a 1974 photo on a record jacket. It was the first recording by St. Peter's Choir of Men and Boys since the Gilbert years.

Callahan, who is now director of the Vermont Conservatory of Music, was succeeded in 1976 by Anthony Ciucci, currently music director of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Camp Hill, Pa. Ciucci was chorimaster/organist until 1983.

Succeeding Ciucci was Thomas G. Whittemore, who was organist/chorimaster until 2004, serving four rectors. He started a girls' choir and St. Peter's School scholarships for choristers. He is now at Trinity Church in Princeton, N.J.

When Whittemore left in June 2004, he was succeeded as choirmaster by Peter Hopkins, and as organist by Paula Pugh Romanaux, who are husband and wife.

Peter Hopkins most recently served as minister of music at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, Mich., and director of the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus. He has been artistic director and choirmaster of the Grand Rapids Choir of Men and Boys, the Michigan Bach Collegium, and is assistant chorus master of the Oregon Bach Festival.  His doctoral studies were done at Michigan State University, and in England and Germany. He is a member of the Gächinger Kantorei and has performed in Germany, Austria and the United States.

Paula Pugh Romanaux was organist and adjunct assistant professor of music at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich., and as director of music at St. Mark’s, Grand Rapids, and St. Luke’s, Kalamazoo, two of the largest Episcopal churches in that diocese. Her doctoral studies in organ performance and church music were at the  Hochschule fur Musik und Darstellende Kunst in Vienna. Outside the United States, she has had recital tours of Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland and Estonia. Her recordings have been heard on NPR’s Performance Today, Pipe Dreams and in Europe.


O Come, Let Us Sing Unto the Lord
Harold Gilbert's 'boys' in 1948; today's choirboys a la Harry Potter at Oxford in 2010.
As headmaster, Harold W. Gilbert engendered fierce loyalty and respect from students, teachers, and alumni. Variously described as imposing, handsome, strict, straightlaced, and honorable, he was a disciplinarian who put his responsibilities to his students and his music at the forefront of his professional life. His pipe—which he was never without—was a famous part of his persona. So was the “Gilbert gaze,” which appeared when something was done incorrectly; students tried to avoid it at all costs.
Some church members thought that in later years, Gilbert became too much of a presence, his prominence overshadowing other aspects of the church’s function. That may have been inevitable, given the length of his service and the choir’s stature. All the choir school alumni interviewed by David Richards for his chapter on The Gilbert Years for the St. Peter's history book emphasized the profound effect he had had on their lives. Most were deeply grateful for the experience Some did not appreciate his authoritarian demeanor, but all valued the personal discipline and responsibility for one’s actions that he emphasized. As one alumnus, Bruce A. Hoffsommer, said, “He taught the unforgiving nature of a wrong note sung,” both in the choral setting and in life in general.

As the choir became widely known, it drew a large body of lovers of choral music from all
faiths and a broad geographic area to listen to the world-class choral music sung at Evensong. Sunday mornings in the parish’s worst years might find no more than fifty people at services, but come Evensong, the church would be filled to capacity. Eventually, the choir became nationally and internationally recognized, and Evensong was regularly broadcast.

Special concerts were also held, including a Christmas concert that was broadcast nationally. RCA Victor issued six records of hymn tunes and Christmas carols. At the end of World War II, the choir took part in a celebratory transatlantic broadcast with St. Margaret’s Church in London. Though unconfirmed, this was probably the St. Margaret’s that is the parish church of the House of Commons and part of Westminster Abbey, one of the premier choir schools in the English-speaking world. (Only two of the choir’s seventy-five record albums survive in the St. Peter’s archives. However, after Gilbert’s death, six cases of reel-to-reel recordings were found in his personal effects containing a trove of original recordings of the St. Peter’s Boys’ Choir. They were transcribed onto twenty-seven CDs by alumnus Bruce A. Hoffsommer and sold as The St. Peter’s Church Choir, the Heritage Series. In this way, the sound of Gilbert’s acclaimed choir continues to this day.)

The choir also sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra on several occasions and toured with the orchestra in 1953, performing Verdi’s Joan of Arc (in French) at Carnegie Hall in New York as well as in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. The boys also sang frequently with the Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia and many local churches.

All wasn’t serious in the students’ lives, of course. Graduation included an operetta that the boys performed in the auditorium before their parents. Most of these operettas were written by Gilbert and were replete with maids in long dresses, pirates, Indians, and so forth. The boys also did Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury.

And there was summer camp. The school always had one, and in 1930 Gilbert founded Camp Wisawanik on forty-three acres in South Sterling, Pa., in the Poconos. The land was rented from Mrs. Lois Frick, who, because of her admiration for Gilbert’s work at the
camp, donated it to the church in 1936. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Feardon became benefactors of the camp and largely supported each boy receiving a two- to four-week holiday there from 1930 until Gilbert left in 1960. (In 1976, the camp was purchased by Bob Hanes, a choir alumnus, and his wife. The land is still owned by the Hanes family.)

On April 3, 1960, Gilbert resigned, effective in June. When asked about the resignation, he would say only, “Make sure the boys always respect the rector and the church.” Gilbert was quoted in The Philadelphia Inquirer of April 11, 1960, as saying that movement to a conventional private school “would change [the school’s] character” and that his own interest “has always been and always will be choral music.”

Harold Wells Gilbert died in 1968 and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery, a mile or so north of Camp Wisawanik.

The 18th Century

The 19th Century

The 20th Century

The People of St. Peter's

The Choir

Mission and Outreach

Did You Know?

The Next 250

The Hero of Tripoli

The Book