History of Music at Holy Comforter

Music has played an important role in the life of Holy Comforter since the appointment of Mr. and Mrs. Walter Root as choirmaster and organist, respectively, in 1902 when Holy Comforter was still a mission worshipping on Sunday evenings at Kenilworth Union Church.  After the present church edifice was completed and occupied for the first time on Christmas Day 1903, a small reed organ was presumably the first instrument to serve the church and its small paid choir of two women and two men.

On Easter Day 1906, the first of four pipe organs to serve Holy Comforter was heard for the first time.  The Boston organbuilding firm of Hook & Hastings installed their Opus 2106, a two-manual instrument of twenty registers through the generous support of William F. Wood and his family.  Unfortunately, the organ and interior of the church were destroyed in a fire in October of that year.  When the church was reconstructed in 1907, Hook & Hastings provided an identical instrument in Opus 2147 through the church's insurance claim.

In 1909, John G. Baylis was hired as choirmaster with the specific task of developing a choir of men and boys.  In 1928, the Hook & Hastings instrument was replaced by an eight-rank, two-manual Welte organ relocated from the Wilmette Village Theatre, which was about to close.  On May 20, 1928, the former organist of the First Presbyterian Church in Chicago, Francis S. Moore played a recital on the recently installed organ.  This organ was noted for its dynamic range from a thunderous roar to barely a whisper.  James Topp, who maintained several organs on the North Shore during this time, was responsible for installing an echo division in the passageway from the choir room to the tower.  A girls choir was established in 1935 to supplement the declining membership in the boys choir and by 1937, the boys choir was disbanded.

In 1938, a "Singing Tower" was installed in the church's bell tower, a set of electronically operated and broadcast chimes.  The system also broadcast the live concerts of the choir at Christmas and Easter throughout the entire neighborhood and later in 1940, weekly organ concerts.  In the 1940s, the Johannes Brahms' Lullaby was played from the Singing Tower in honor of any baby born in Kenilworth.  The church history related that this occurred 156 times in 1949.  The chimes also played a patriotic part at appropriate times during World War II.  These chimes, no longer repairable by 1974, were replaced by a set manufactured by Schulmerich Carillons, Inc. of Sellersville, PA through the support of an anonymous donor, and updated in 1997 through the generous support of Frank B. Foster.

Dr. John F. Ohl began his tenure as choirmaster in 1955.  As a widely respected musicologist, Professor of Music History and Literature, and Chairman of the Department of Music History at Northwestern University, Dr. Ohl strengthened the choir with the use of paid section leaders and expanded the choral repertoire to include many of the choral masterpieces by composers of the Renaissance period to J. S. Bach.  By the early 1960s, the need for a new organ had become apparent.  After consulting with George E. McClay, Associate Dean of the School of Music at Northwestern University and Organist-Choirmaster at Trinity Episcopal Church in Highland Park, IL, a contract was signed with the pre-eminent organbuilder of the time, the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company of Boston, MA.  The present 25-rank organ was installed in March 1966 through the generosity of the Erwin A. Steubner family and formally blessed on October 30, 1966 in an Evensong service.  Dr. Robert Lodine, organist-choirmaster at St. Chrysostom's Episcopal Church in Chicago and for carilloneur at University of Chicago's Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, played the inaugural recital on November 23, 1966.

After Dr. Ohl retired in 1972, efforts were made to reduce the annual expenses of the music budget by going to an all-volunteer choir.  Vincent Allison, Director of Music at the North Shore Country Day School, served briefly as choirmaster before Douglas E. Peterson began his tenure as Director of Music in 1973.  A boys choir was reinstated in 1973 to sing twice a month with the men of the choir and later a girls choir was established.  For several years, the boys and the girls choirs would alternate singing with the adult choir.  Finding enough adult voices to form an Adult Choir became a daunting challenge.  In 1985, funds were approved for 3 paid sections leaders to help offset this challenge.  This challenge continued while the Rev. Kenneth J. Dorsch served as Director of Music in the 1980s.

J. Gary Stuart began his tenure as Director of Music in 1990 and established many of the musical traditions that have become part of the parish life of Holy Comforter.  The Advent Lessons and Carols Service that first appeared in 1980 but changed to Christmas Lessons and Carols on the first Sunday after Christmas in 1981 and 1982, was re-instated in 1991 as an Advent tradition.  The Lenten Evensong tradition began in 1992 as a way to begin our Lenten journey as we experience and reflect upon an extended sacred text set to music.  Past Evensongs have included Requiem settings by Duruflé, Fauré, and Rutter, Mass settings by Gounod and Schubert, and other works by Bach, Handel and Mozart.  The choir was strengthened by 8 paid section leaders and had grown to an average number of 20.  In 2002, in celebration of the parish's centennial, the choir recorded a CD, Seasons of the Soul, a collection of choral music sung throughout the church year.  This CD also featured music performed by the Children's Choir and the Junior Choir.  The first Junior Choir had been founded and directed by Virginia Knapp Forbis.  In more recent years, this ministry was directed by Linda Wiele, Melanie Collman, Stephanie Wallace, and Youna Cho.

Choirmasters
1902-1903      Walter Root
1903-1909      Mrs. Harry Taylor
1909-1931      John G. Baylis
1932-1937      Lawrence Yingling
1937-1941      Clare John Thomas
1941-1954      Lawrence Yingling
1942-1944      Donald G. Calweti, assistant
1955-1972      John F. Ohl, Ph.D.
1972-1973      Vincent B. Allison

Organists                                                                   
1902-1906      Mrs. Walter (Louise) Root
1906-1912      Burton Thoms
1912-1926      Louise Lloyd Bierwert
1926-1927      D. Sterling Wheelwright
1926-1927      Elizabeth Shipman, assistant
1926-1931      Irene Belden Zaring
1927-1929      Helene Dixon, assistant
1932-1967      Virginia Knapp Forbis
1967-1970      Robert Reeves
1971              Michael Mains
1971-1972      Joanne Titus
1972-1973      Dennis Stabler
Summer 1973  Richard Hoskins, interim

Directors of Music
1973-1984      Douglas E. Peterson
1984-1990      Rev. Kenneth J. Dorsch
1990-2002      J. Gary Stuart
2003-present  Derek E. Nickels, DMA