April 4, 2023

Celebrating Historic Sacred Places as Musical Spaces

For many, the act of listening to or performing music is often described as something sacred. In many religions around the world, foundational sacred texts and stories feature music as a recurring theme, and music has become an engaging way of expressing prayers in worship services. The natural connection between worship and music has grown over time as sacred sites have doubled as rehearsal and performance spaces which welcome broader audiences and foster cultural enrichment.

In histories of sacred sites, many congregations proudly celebrate the well-known musicians who performed on site, the successes of acclaimed musicians who started in religious choirs, and the role of members in founding significant music organizations. That continues today, as sacred sites are becoming ideal spaces for a growing number of professional and community-based music groups. These sites often share space with youth music camps, volunteer choirs, experimental music troupes, or music education classes at reduced rates or free of charge, making music more accessible to everyone.

A man and a woman sit in front of an alter singing with gusto. The woman is in a purple and white dress, while the man sits on a chair in a black suit.

photo by: Opera MODO

Opera MODO performs Poulenc’s “Dialogue of the Carmelites” at Christ Church Detroit, which received support from the National Fund for Sacred Places.

The three examples below illustrate how, through creative thinking about space sharing and strong preservation stewardship, historic houses of worship can generate access to music for communities. They also show how music programming helps ensure the survival of historic houses of worship by bringing in more people and revenue.

Support from the National Fund for Sacred Places, a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic Preservation—which offers funding and technical assistance towards preserving community-serving historic houses of worship—will help these sites continue uplifting their communities through music.

Christ Church Detroit (Detroit, Michigan)

Founded in 1845 to serve a growing city, Christ Church Detroit has a long commitment to enriching the city’s musical culture. In the late 1800s, founding members of Christ Church helped launch the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, now one of the oldest symphonies in the United States. As Detroit faces heightened development pressures, Christ Church is working to prevent the arts community from being pushed out of the neighborhood through abundant space sharing opportunities.

Christ Church recognizes that “musical excellence opens the doors of the church to many.” A choir, youth choir, and handbell choir all are integral parts of worship, and the church hosts community events such as the Detroit Choir Festival and the Detroit Aria Competition in collaboration with local music groups. The church has also hosted camps for Girls Rock, an organization which fosters creative expression in girls, women, gender expansive, and transgender people through activism and music.

Exterior of a gray church with a bright blue sky above.

photo by: Jamie Feldman

Exterior of Detroit Christ Church.

The crowning musical achievement of Christ Church is hosting an opera company within its walls. Founded by Danielle Wright, Opera MODO is dedicated to “creating opportunities for young and emerging artists,” to producing more inclusive versions of classic and contemporary operas, and to introducing new audiences to opera. For example, Opera MODO performed a video game-inspired adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute and developed D[x]n Pasquale, a new LGBTQ+ opera centered on a young, nonbinary artist. Opera MODO also supports underrepresented performers through a resident artist program which provides training, financial support, and performance opportunities.

A man dressed in black and a woman in a nun's habit sing to each other in an opera.

photo by: Opera MODO

Opera MODO performs Poulenc’s “Dialogue of the Carmelites” at Christ Church Detroit.

Opera MODO's promotional video of their adaptation of The Magic Flute.

Wright commented that “being in residence at Christ Church Detroit has been the backbone of Opera MODO existing in Detroit. CCD makes it possible for MODO to thrive!” Through National Fund-supported work, including stabilization, waterproofing, and soundproofing of the fellowship hall, representatives of Christ Church hopes to further “develop as a haven for the arts in the heart of Detroit.”

Immanuel Presbyterian Church (Albuquerque, New Mexico)

Exterior of a church in New Mexico with a group of people in front of it.

photo by: Drew Henry

Exterior of the Immanuel Presbyterian Church.

Designed in 1956 along Route 66 by noted architect John Gaw Meem, Immanuel Presbyterian Church is now transforming into a “sacred place and a civic space focused on the performing arts” and a “first-rate concert and performance venue for the entire community.” Immanuel has hosted concerts in its sanctuary for decades, welcoming groups such as the New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus and the University of New Mexico’s Orchestra Program. A new, long-term partnership with the New Mexico Philharmonic has the potential to serve as a model for space sharing at sacred places nationwide.

Since its founding in 1932, the New Mexico Philharmonic has never owned or had first access to performance venues. The Philharmonic met wherever they found space, often in small churches or concert halls, but has struggled in recent years to find meeting space due to venues’ COVID-19 restrictions. In 2021, the Philharmonic connected with Immanuel about using the sanctuary on a regular basis as an office, storage, rehearsal, and performance space.

Interior of the Immanuel Presbyterian Church with full pews.

photo by: Drew Henry

New Mexico Philharmonic performs at Immanuel Presbyterian Church.

Musicians in the Philharmonic and thousands of audience members quickly took to Immanuel’s sanctuary, which Maureen Baca, president of the Philharmonic’s Board of Directors, described as a “treasure for our community.” Robert Minczuk, music director of the Philharmonic and a Grammy Award-winning artist, even declared Immanuel as “one of [his] favorite places to conduct in the world” due to its acoustics, which reportedly rival European concert halls.

The Philharmonic will now make Immanuel’s sanctuary its first permanent home, while the small congregation will conduct worship in the building’s original sanctuary, which is more suited to its needs. Immanuel and the Philharmonic will work together to repair the sanctuary with grant and technical assistance support from the National Fund, and will co-steward the church in the future.

Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (Brooklyn, New York)

Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church (LAPC) in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was founded in 1857 with a fervent commitment to abolitionism and suffrage. LAPC has been a welcoming home for the arts since the 1870s and sees performance and music not just as entertainment but also as “part of the ministry.” Music is so much a part of the culture of the church that numerous musicians, including a bagpiper, are featured in the community-inspired Cloud of Witnesses mural painted in 1978, which wraps around the sanctuary and flanks the historic pipe organ.

LAPC is home to two separate choirs and a youth band that perform at worship services and community events: Lafayette Choir, Lafayette Band, and the Inspirational Ensemble. The Lafayette Choir, directed by renowned organist and composer J. David Williams who also serves as the music director of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Manhattan, has been the anchor of the thriving music program at LAPC, performing Anthems and Spirituals.

Exterior facade of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church

photo by: Deborah Howard

Exterior of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church.

The Inspirational Ensemble, directed by jazz and blues singer Janis Russell, is a multicultural and multi-generational gospel choir that transcends “gospel stereotypes.” In 2022, the group performed at the unveiling of the first National Votes for Women Trail historical plaque in New York City, celebrating the achievements of Black women suffragists in Brooklyn.

Interior of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church with a mural called Clouds as Witness featuring many figures of many different ages walking across the walls.

photo by: National Trust for Historic Preservation

Interior of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church featuring "Cloud of Witnesses" mural.

To catch a glimpse of the Lafayette Inspirational Ensemble Spring Concert, jump to minute 7.

The church building also serves as a rehearsal and performance space for many community-based music groups, including the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, Brooklyn Jazz Orchestra, and is home to Irondale, a well-known theater company. LAPC also hosts Jazz Vespers services featuring local and national talent. At the September 2022 groundbreaking of the National Fund-supported restoration of the building envelope, Russell, accompanied by youth musicians from the Lafayette Band, sang about how this work will make Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church an even more welcoming community space.

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Emily Kahn is the former associate manager of the National Fund for Sacred Places at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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