A Year Ago… EACC fire remembered

Euclid Avenue Congregational Church Euclid Avenue Congregational Church fire Ruins of Euclid Avenue Congregational Church

It was a year ago today in the early hours of the morning that fire destroyed Euclid Avenue Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ, which was my church home (and employer) for twenty-seven years. The fire began during a freak thunder and lightning storm late the night before. I’d had Rosie out for her last walk of the night, and I remember wanting her to finish her business because it was starting to thunder. I’d also had a series of annoying spam calls on my cell phone, so I had turned it off before I went to bed at midnight. Had I not done that, I would have been among the first (perhaps the first?) to get the call about the fire, since I live in close proximity to the place and occasionally would receive calls from the Cleveland Clinic security about issues at the church. As it was, I did not know anything until early the next morning.

This all took place the Wednesday before Palm Sunday and Holy Week. There was a meeting of church leaders and staff in the morning on Wednesday, and by the end of the day the church found a temporary home thanks to the congregation of the former First United Methodist Church, who had recently vacated the church to merge with the former Epworth Euclid United Methodist Church. It was quite a miracle—a spacious facility with a large pipe organ, grand piano, hymnals in the pews. The EACC congregation is still meeting there a year later as they determine their future as a church.

The impact to me personally was considerable, since the church’s organ was lost, as was the choir’s music library and much of my own personal organ music library. I received a very generous insurance settlement, and I have replaced a lot of the music; I also received several very generous gifts of organ music from professional colleagues. Almost every week, however, I still discover something else that is gone. And money alone can’t replace the personal nostalgia that I had for some of the music, with its accumulation of forty years of markings, fingerings, and teachers’ markings. Some of the music was falling apart; other things had never been played.

There have been, of course, many challenges since then, and I salute those church leaders who have worked so tirelessly over the past year. The year was not without conflict, but the EACC congregation continues to be the resilient body it has been for over 160 years.

There have been many changes in the past year: Rev. Terri Young, the Interim Pastor at the time of the fire, has moved on to a new situation; the church has called Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins as its permanent pastor; and I have retired from the church as its Director of Music, with the intention of not playing every Sunday.

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t still think about the old church, and the magnificent Karl Wilhelm organ, which can never be replaced at any price. It was a unique instrument in a specific environment. One of the wonders of being an organist is that one’s instrument is integral to the architecture in which it is installed. Sometimes that equation works; other times it’s out of kilter. The Wilhelm was a perfect fit.

As Isaac Watts’ hymn said, “time, like an ever-rolling stream,” keeps on going. We survive; things change; things get better or worse. All the tears in the world won’t bring back the past. Optimism for the future is what sustains us.

There will be a service of remembrance at the site, 9606 Euclid Avenue, tonight, March 23, 2011, at 6:00 PM.

Our God, hour help in ages past,
Our Hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.
– Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

EACC music rundown

Today’s organ music at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church:

Prière á Notre Dame (from Suite Gothique) – Léon Boëllmann

Offertorio (C Major) – Domenico Zippoli (transcribed by E. Power Biggs)

Soliloquy – David Conte

(This list provided for those who might imagine that I play nothing but timeless masterpieces for my congregation.  It is summer and the sanctuary is not air-conditioned.)

EACC Choir gets a review at Jubilation

This is rather old news now, but the choir from Euclid Avenue Congregational Church received a complimentary mention in ClevelandClassical.com after our appearance at the WCLV Jubilation Choir Festival at St. John Cathedral in Cleveland in May.

The free will offering taken on Friday night was also given to the music program at the church. The audience was generous, with donations totaling over $1400, which will be used as seed money to purchase new choir robes for both our Chancel and Gospel choirs. St. Joseph Church in Avon Lake, one of the competitors in the festival, also donated their $500 prize to EACC, which will go for the same purpose.

I continue to be amazed at the generosity of people to EACC.

EACC Choir prepares for performance on Friday

This evening the Chancel Choir from Euclid Avenue Congregational Church rehearsed at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Cleveland for our performance at the Jubilation Festival on Friday night, May 21.  Although it is a competition, we are not competing, but we were invited to perform during the judges’ deliberations.  Jubilation starts tomorrow night and concludes on Friday night.  It will be broadcast live on WCLV 104.9 FM beginning at 8:00 PM EDT.  WCLV will stream over the Internet as well.

As you know from past posts here, it hasn’t been the greatest Spring for our church or for the choir, since the destruction by fire of our building, our music and robes (plus everything else in the building), so being invited to perform in such a venue as the cathedral, and on the radio, is such an honor for us.  It has brought a lift to the choir’s spirit, I think. I am really proud of the choir and their hard work to get ready for this appearance.  They sound awesome in the space.  If you’re available, it’s free and should be a good show.

Easter 2010 at Euclid Avenue Congregational Church in Exile

Easter Rainbow above the church in a clear sky
Easter Rainbow above the church in a clear sky
EACC Easter crowd on front church steps at E.30 & Euclid
EACC Easter crowd on front church steps at E.30 & Euclid
Balloon flight 2010
Balloon flight 2010

The congregation of Euclid Avenue Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ celebrated Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010, in the sanctuary of the former First United Methodist Church, East 30th Street and Euclid Avenue, in downtown Cleveland. There was a very large crowd, and the enormous First Church sanctuary was well-filled.

It was a very festive service, and the grief of the previous twelve days was, at least temporarily, set aside to celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. There was festive music: Jean Langlais’s “Acclamations” for the organ prelude; Randall Thompson’s “Alleluia;” an arrangement by Mack Wilberg of “Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above;” and, of course, the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah. The mighty Casavant organ got to sing at full volume with the energetic singing of the congregation.

Interim Pastor Terri Young gave a beautiful sermon about just as for the early followers of Jesus, it was necessary to pass through Good Friday in order to get to Resurrection Sunday. In the same way, EACC has passed through the death of the fire in order to be reborn into the new life that God has in store for the congregation.

Pastor Terri also baptized six or seven children, and there was Holy Communion. Rev. Curt Ackley, the Association Minister of the United Church of Christ Western Reserve Association, welcomed representatives from other Western Reserve Association churches who presented greetings from their congregations.

Following the service the congregation celebrated its traditional “Easter balloon release.” Prior to Easter, Sunday School students and other members of the congregation sign church-addressed postcards which are then attached to the strings of hundreds of helium balloons. After the service, each person is given a balloon, and the congregation assembles on the front steps of the church. In response to the Easter Acclamation, “The Lord is risen!” the congregation shouts, “The Lord is risen indeed!” and releases their balloons. This was a stunningly beautiful day, with a clear sky and a slight wind which took the balloons in a northeasterly direction. Just as the balloons were launched, the sun was hidden behind the church steeple and there was a mysterious “rainbow” or “corona” that appeared in the sky above us. Was it God renewing God’s rainbow covenant with our church? It did seem miraculous to have the colors of the rainbow at that particular moment.

The balloon launch was followed by a reception for all in the dining room of the church. After the somber tone of the Palm Sunday service and the palpable grief of just a week ago, it was good to see people set it aside, even momentarily. There is no doubt that there will be many challenges in the weeks, months and years ahead as the church decides on its future. But with God’s help, all is possible.

A few steps forward, a step backward

Since last Tuesday night after the EACC exterior walls were demolished, I have purposely not visited or driven by the site, in the same way I would avoid looking at a rotting corpse lying alongside the road. Today, however, our Wednesday mid-day services of prayer and healing resumed. The Cleveland Clinic has generously offered the church the use of their lovely chapel—very modern and quite stark, but full of light and visual interest—for the services. The clinic also offered grief and wholeness counseling to the attendees at the service. There was no way for me to get to the service without passing by the EACC site, and I knew it would be difficult.

On the way in I tried not to look, but after the service I intentionally stopped to observe the ongoing demolition and removal of debris. The demolition experts have found several artifacts (including some historical records that may or may not be able to be preserved because of water damage). Sitting on top of a lidded dumpster was one of my organ music books (I recognized it immediately—a volume of Bach organ music, a reprint of the Bach Gesellschaft edition by Dover). It was brittle and totally charred around the edges, beyond anything that could be considered useful. It disintegrated to the touch. Another member asked if I didn’t want it. No, I have no use for it. The book had a useful life once, but that life is now extinguished with the flames that burned it.

That was enough for me, and, frankly, I had to walk away to compose myself. It was time to return to work. There may be remnants of our past church life there, but I question the amount of energy that some may be expending to retrieve them. (It is, of course, not for me to say what is meaningful to others.) I guess it is part of the grief process, but for me, grasping at what is gone won’t help me move into the future.

I will routinely be walking that path to these services in the coming months. In a relatively short time the EACC site will be fully excavated and will again be green space, as it was in the 1860s when the church first built a structure on the place, when the area was at the far reaches of the city of Cleveland. Maybe the healing of the site will help with the healing of our hearts.

One week, post-fire. Life continues

The shell of the burned out church
The shell of the burned out church, taken 6:45 PM, March 23, 2010
Euclid Avenue Congregational Church engraved into the building
Euclid Avenue Congregational Church engraved into the building

It has been a long and extraordinary week. I have had neither the time nor the inclination to update this blog until now, but I need to capture some of the events before they recede too far into memory and are lost.

By Tuesday morning last the fire at EACC was more or less under control, but only some of the exterior stone walls remained. The entire contents and interior structure of the church were destroyed. At 10:00 AM the church staff and some of the church lay leaders met at the Mount Zion United Church of Christ, our sister church near the Cleveland Veteran’s Administration hospital in University Circle, to start to discuss decisions to be made to move forward temporarily, including a place to hold Holy Week services. A representative of the church’s insurance agency was also present to discuss the church’s coverage. I had to leave the meeting shortly before 11:30 in order to get to the library for an important lunch meeting there. I confess that my mind was not on library business for the afternoon. Among other calls I received (because somehow my office number was listed and the media and others could not reach other church staff) was one from an agent from the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency of the U.S. government. It turns out that the ATF investigates all church fires. I also had calls from some very pushy reporters, one of whom from the Plain Dealer I more or less hung up on.

In the evening there was a special church service and congregational meeting called for 7:00 at Mount Zion. On my way I stopped to look at the church “corpse,” because I had heard that the remaining walls would be demolished overnight. There were a number of other church members also present to view the scene, as well as a constant parade of curiosity seekers driving by.

The service was brief, with a couple of hymns (“The Church’s One Foundation” and “Amazing Grace”), some scripture readings and a prayer during which members were invited first to name one thing that they had lost in the fire, then later to name one thing they hoped for the future. After the service, there was a brief meeting in which some announcements were made: that for at least the next two Sundays we would be holding services at the former First United Methodist Church at East 30th and Euclid in downtown Cleveland; that we would not hold Maundy Thursday or Good Friday services this year. There were some questions as well, although there were not yet many answers. After the meeting there were lots of hugs and tears. There was a full array of media covering the service and meeting.

I left Mount Zion a little after 9:00 and went to get something to eat—I’d had very little all day—and by the time I headed home a little before 10:00 I could see that the remaining walls of EACC were gone. I was exhausted.

The rest of the week combined trying to do library work with figuring out what would happen next with the music at the church. I needed to decide about music for Easter Sunday and figure out how we would have a choir rehearsal this week with no space. I received many messages of support from friends, former choir members, and from others interested in the church. There were offers of hymnals, choir robes (not accepted) and offers of loans of music for the choir (accepted gratefully), as well as offers of organ practice time. I have been overwhelmed by this outpouring of compassion.

The last picture of the Wilhelm organ at EACC, taken March 17, 2010
The last picture of the Wilhelm organ at EACC, taken March 17, 2010

Although there were offers of choir rehearsal space from other churches, for this week I decided that we needed to be “family” and I hosted our regular Thursday rehearsal in my music room at home. It was good to have that sense of togetherness, even though the space is really too small for the sound that was coming out of the sixteen people assembled. People were very anxious about what would happen, and I did my best to reassure them, even though I’m not sure myself.

Throughout the week I kept thinking of pieces of music that were at the church that have some special meaning to me that can’t be replaced. Of course, the practical midwesterner in me knows that dwelling on what can’t be undone is not very productive, but I guess it’s going to happen whether I like it or not.

On Saturday the church staff and some of the lay leaders met at the First Church building to become oriented to the building and how it works. The sanctuary is vast. The organ (an older four-manual Casavant that was renovated at some point in the ’90s, I think, with a new French-style console) is quite impressive, in a totally different way from my beloved Wilhelm organ at EACC. But I keep telling myself, it’s a real pipe organ in a real church, and not an electronic keyboard in a hotel meeting room somewhere. I had about 40 minutes to practice on it—by no means not enough, but at least enough to get some idea of how to play a service on Sunday. George had driven in from DC to be with me and the EACC family for the weekend. I was glad to have him around to help keep me sane.

I managed to get it together to be at the new location by 8:30 on Sunday morning—Palm Sunday—so I had about twenty minutes to warm up on the organ. Other than the hymns and prelude (Max Reger’s “Benedictus”) I didn’t have to play much else, because the church’s Gospel Choir was also performing, along with the Chancel Choir, which sang Daniel Moe’s “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Since we had never sung in the space before, nor sung with the organ, I too the easy way out and accompanied them on the piano. The acoustic for the singers is quite strange and will take getting used to, as will singing in a much larger space. The temptation is to over-sing, but it’s not necessary. Despite everyone’s anxiety, the service went quite well, and there was a large crowd, including a panoply of media, who were discreet during the service.

Following the service I was interviewed at the organ by Leon Bibb from Cleveland’s ABC affiliate, Channel 5 WEWS. Leon is not only the evening news anchor but also an EACC member. He covered the fire from the beginning, and his coverage has been unfailingly tasteful. It must have been incredibly difficult for him to maintain his professional persona while being personally involved with the circumstances. In that we share something—despite my personal grief, it is my responsibility to help the choir and members of the congregation in their worship of God, so I have to set aside my feelings, at least for a while, to accomplish that goal.

In the afternoon, after George left for Washington, I was able to finally give myself the chance to unwind. I only wanted to sleep. My failed attempt to read resulted in a four hour nap.

So we have made it through Week One, post EACC. It has been difficult, but the outpouring of concern has been a blessing. Maybe it will get easier. I hope so.


To my friends near and far:

Overnight in the early hours of Tuesday, March 23, the Euclid Avenue Congregational Church in Cleveland, where I have been the director of music for the past 26 years, caught fire and was totally destroyed. I only have sketchy details at this time. This includes the magnificent Karl Wilhelm organ that I have been privileged to play.

Most of my personal organ music was stored there and was also destroyed. For me that is more devastating, and not because of financial loss, but it included music that goes back to my beginnings as an organist and music that contained markings from my beloved organ teachers who have taught me so much.

I am too overwhelmed to say more at this time, but please keep our congregation in your thoughts and prayers. The congregation was founded in 1843 and has suffered through adversity in the past. As a Christian I believe that God (or Allah, or Yahweh, or whatever word for the Almighty you want to use) will provide for the future.