The early organists at First Baptist Church (1905-1975) are an intriguing collection. One was willful and arguably bad-tempered; another had an unusual name which the press messed up; one was on staff when the Sanctuary and organ burned to a crisp; another was a talented young person whose term was cut short by tragedy; and one formed a folk choir and coaxed a tuneful voice out of the last of the church’s pipe organs.
Not dull at all!
There was no organ in the tiny chapel building, which was FBC’s first permanent home (just off Main at East Pender). So, the earliest congregational accompanists at First Baptist Church Vancouver weren’t organists, but volunteer pianists. One of the earliest of these was Laura Carlisle (wife of J. H. Carlisle).
The congregation’s first organ — a pump pipe organ, evidently — was donated by a Mr. Jesse Williams when the church moved into its first proper worship building (SE corner of Hamilton and Dunsmuir).¹ I couldn’t find in press reports nor in the church archives much of a description of this first organ. Early FBC organists were paid $15 per month for their services. But this first organ wasn’t, strictly speaking, a solo instrument; the boy who pumped air into the organ — the pumper — was a critical member of the team, although organists and their listeners tended not to remember that, much less pay him anything for his services (W. M. Carmichael. These Sixty Years: 1887-1947, p. 18).
John Alexander (1905)
The first organist/choirmaster identified in FBC’s records was John Alexander, a Scot. We introduced Alexander in an earlier post and related his stubborn streak when faced with a pastor who was, in his judgement, unreasonable.
Alexander had been the organist for Candlish Presbyterian Church in Edinburgh. He arrived in Vancouver in 1903 (Province, 25 July 1903). He began by offering his services in the city as a vocal trainer and piano instructor (Province, 18 Aug 1903).
Alexander began working at FBC sometime in 1905. The story of his ultimate departure from First is told at this link. He made his exit by September 1905.
After leaving FBC, he took over organ-playing and choir-leading responsibilities for the Congregational Church. He resigned his job there in September 1907 to take up a post with a North Vancouver church (Province, 21 Sept 1907).
I wasn’t able to find a record of the year Alexander died.
F. G. M. Grundy (1906-1910?)
Miss F. Grundy was appointed to replace Alexander in June 1906 (Province, 2 June 1906).
The information available today on Miss Grundy is remarkably scant (before, during and after her time at First), save that she was the organist at St. James Anglican Church prior to going to FBC.
The quality of Grundy’s playing, is described in a 1907 feature of the church, as being nice, though unambitious — faint praise, to be sure (Province, 6 Apr 1907). But if Grundy’s reported playing matched her personality, I suspect that probably suited church leaders, after their experience with Alexander.
T. Bonne Millar (1910-1919; 1920-1921)
T(homas) Bonne (pronounced Bonnie) Millar, began as FBC’s organist/choir director in November 1910. (He must have been frustrated with the local press who couldn’t seem to cope with his middle name; in one press account, a caption under his photograph identified “T. Bone Millar”).
He was born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland and, according to a Province article, his uncle, George Taggart, was “the leading musical citizen of Glasgow” (Province, 4 November 1910). Millar was organist of John Street Presbyterian Church, Glasgow, for eight years and served as organist/choirmaster of Mt. Pleasant Methodist, in Vancouver for about three years prior to hiring on at First.
Millar must have been pleased to be employed at FBC when he was, as he took the job just before the congregation moved into their new structure at Nelson and Burrard — with a new (although relatively modest, I suspect) pipe organ. Unhappily, there is very little detail that I could find about the specifics of the instrument, save that it was expected to cost about $7,200.
Millar remained at FBC until 1919, when he accepted a job at the organ for Central Methodist Church in Calgary. The Daily World, in a retrospective piece published on the occasion of his departure from Vancouver, claimed that his place in Vancouver’s music scene “will not be readily filled”:
During his regime at the First Baptist Church the choir has been brought to a high state of efficiency, for two years in succession carrying away the highest honors, in the shape of the Fromme and Steuart [sic; Stewart, actually, I think] challenge cups from the B. C. [Music] Festival, held at Lynn Valley 1915-16…
Daily World. 4 January, 1919, p. 9.
Alas, his time in Calgary which seemed so promising in January, was abandoned in June of the same year, probably due to poor health. He returned to Vancouver where he resumed playing for Mt Pleasant Methodist Church (where he had been organist for a few years prior to taking on the job at FBC in 1910).
It wasn’t long before he was back in the Baptist saddle, though. First Baptist re-hired Millar as its organist and choirmaster sometime in 1920. But his health soon took a negative turn and he was forced to take a 6-month leave of absence from First, which he spent in California. Millar ultimately decided that his health was too fragile for him to continue as organist at First and he resigned again in 1921.
By 1923, to help keep body and soul attached, presumably, he took on the organist’s job at (the less demanding?) Fairview Baptist Church. He also led the Men’s Musical Club (1919-20).
T. Bonne Millar died in 1942 at age 60.
Wilbur G. Grant (1921-1928)
During Millar’s health-related ‘to-ing and fro-ing’, Wilbur G. Grant was acting FBC organist/choirmaster. He was confirmed in the job in 1921 upon Millar’s departure for Calgary. Grant was from Toronto, where he trained under organist/conductor, Augustus Vogt. He served as organist at Broadway Tabernacle, Toronto, for a few years. Grant headed west ca1913 and settled in Edmonton where he worked as organist/choirmaster of First Presbyterian Church and later as musical director at Alberta College (later known as the University of Alberta).
Sometime in 1921, he left Edmonton. It may have been for health reasons, as an early Edmonton press report indicated that Grant suffered from asthma. He opened a piano studio in the Fairview district of the City of Vancouver while he and his family resided in the West Vancouver community of Ambleside. Presumably, the Baptists came calling on Grant to serve as acting organist/choirmaster in the wake of Millar’s departure for Calgary (and later, during Millar’s leave of absence). Upon Millar’s final resignation, Grant took over.
Grant played for FBC until 1928.
After leaving First, Grant became organist for St. George’s Anglican Church. He also led the UBC Musical Society (1921-23+), the North Vancouver Choral Society (1925-27), the Point Grey Choral Society (1926-27), and the David Spencer Choir (ca1934).
He died a very young man in 1935 at age 54, after a “lingering illness”.
Evan Walters (1928-1956)
Evan Walters filled the organ/choir director’s position upon the resignation of Grant. Walters was a Welshman who had recently arrived in the city. He had earned a degree from the Royal Academy of Music, London and led a choir of over 200 voices in one of the largest churches in Swansea, Wales (Sun, 28 Sept 1928).
Walters’ period at FBC saw him play many organ recitals and lead the choir from strength to strength. But after he’d been on the job for about three years the church entered a period of loss and transition. Much-loved pastor, J. J. Ross, resigned the pastorate at the end of 1929 to accept a call to Trinity Baptist, Winnipeg. That sparked an unsettled two-year search for a new senior minister. But perhaps the greater loss, from Walters’ point of view, occurred on Tuesday, February 10, 1931, when FBC’s sanctuary burned to the ground; the organ went with it.
FBC was determined to build a new and even better sanctuary, quickly. And included in the plans was a new pipe organ. So there was hope amid loss. The organ would be a big-ticket item: $15,000. The sanctuary was completed and the “Mother’s Memorial Organ” was installed in time for the re-dedication service in November of the same year — just 9 months after the fire. Why the “Mother’s Memorial” organ? It was a clever means of fund-raising to name the new organ in honour of congregants’ mothers who had ‘passed on’.
When rooting around FBC’s archive for information on the organ, I discovered (in an unmarked banker’s box beneath a bookshelf) a special book that was prepared during the fund-raising period, showing the name of each donor (on the left page of each two-page spread) and that person’s mother (on the right). A PDF of the book has been created.
The Mother’s Memorial Organ is described in the following blurb in the Dedication bulletin:
It is a three-manual, thirty-six stop instrument, thoroughly modern in construction. It is a model of mechanical skill, quick and reliable, instantaneous response. . . . There are nearly 2,200 speaking pipes in the instrument of wood and metal of various shapes and sizes, and make a rare combination of tone. The organ reflects great credit on the skill and efficiency of the builders and is another tribute to the high reputation of the Woodstock Pipe Organ Builders [which local pipe organ aficionado, Tom Carter, has pointed out was once part of the older firm of Karn-Warren Organ Co., which closed in 1895] (Emphasis mine).
Walters called it quits at First in 1956, having served there for 27 years.
In addition to his work for First, Walters was the conductor of the Burrard Male Choir (1931-44), the Hudson’s Bay Company Choir (1933-40), the Brahms Choir (1935-38), the CPR Male Choir (1934-37), and the Welsh Choral Society (1947-51).² He also led a mass choir of 1,500 voices, accompanied by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of the 1939 Royal Visit to Vancouver. He was on retainer at Mount Pleasant Chapel undertakers for 34 years (1928-62).
He died in 1965 at age 74, apparently of Leukemia.
Sherwood Robson (1956-1966)
Sherwood Robson took over the organist’s post at FBC in September 1956. He was well-known around the city as a successful leader of school choirs and of the Vancouver Teachers’ Choir. He also led the Bach Choir (1948-50), the Night School Ladies’ Chorus (ca 1947), and the South Vancouver Olympic Girls’ Choir (ca1937).
Robson finished a 10-year term at FBC in June 1966.
A decade later, Robson conducted a special combined Easter choir of FBC, St. Andrew’s United (North Vancouver), and West Vancouver Baptist churches, singing selections from Handel’s Messiah (Province, 10 Apr 1976). On this occasion, past and present music staff were brought together on a project: Former FBC organist Robson led the mass choir, and past and future FBC organist Carol Barker (formerly Williams) was their organist/accompanist.
Sherwood Robson died in December 1995.
Carol Williams (1967-1968)
FBC’s Music Committee’s Annual Report in 1967 stated that after interviewing many applicants for the organist/choir director’s position, “we engaged on November 1 , the services of Mr. Curtis Williams and his wife, Carol. We are confident these two competent young people will rapidly develop a progressive approach to our music ministry tradition in a happy and capable manner.” This was a departure for FBC, as the two tasks, which had for so long been taken on by a single person, would now be split: Curtis would assume the job of choir direction while Carol would be the organist.
The Williams’ were evidently keen in their new posts at First and the church was likewise delighted with their work. Then, tragedy. A boating accident in the summer of 1968 claimed the lives of Ed Richardson (Carol’s father) and Curtis Williams. Carol Williams stepped down from the organist’s position.
But Carol was not finished at First — not by a long ways. She would return following her marriage to Larry Barker, as Carol Barker, for numerous appearances on the organ and harp starting in the late-1970s and continuing through the ’80s, and ’90s.
She died in April, 2018.
Darryl Downton (1969-75)
Darryl Downton was selected as the new FBC organist/choir director in May 1969. He came to First from the Canadian Memorial United Church, where he had been the organist. He was offered a one-year contract and began playing at FBC in September, 1969. His contract would be enthusiastically renewed and Downton would remain at FBC for six years.
In 1970, the Sun reported on a noon-hour concert which included Downton playing the Mother’s Memorial Organ. He received a very good review; the organ did not. The MMO was showing her age, some 40 years after being installed.
The concerts are the brainchild of First Baptist’s organist, Darryl Downton, who was one of two soloists on the program. A musician of talent and, as became apparent, considerable courage, Downton wheedled the church’s decrepit 36-rank organ — which he compared to a 1934 Chevrolet — into a fair-sounding performance.
Sun, 9 Dec 1970
An innovation of Downton’s at First was the creation of a folk choir known as the Sunday Singers. Imagine what earlier organist/choir leaders at FBC would have had to say about ‘folk music’ at a Baptist church! According to Mr. Downton, a number of the Sunday Singers remain today in friendly contact with each other.
In 1975, Downton resigned his post at FBC. He picked up the organist’s position, again, at the Canadian Memorial church for a number of years, until retiring.
Darryl Downton still lives in Vancouver, with his wife, Carol.
Pipe Organ Fades to Black
In 1971, an Organ Committee was established at FBC to evaluate the Mother’s Memorial Organ and whether it had a future at the church; and if so, at what cost. When the committee reported a year later, they concluded that the expense of maintaining the old organ was nigh-unto prohibitive. But, as they hadn’t been charged to make recommendations on buying a new organ, their report took a conservative tack, suggesting that the church spend the dollars necessary to do the most necessary work on the organ (the sort that couldn’t wait any longer) and that church leaders bear in mind that within about 5 years they would need either to do a major overhaul of MMO or buy a new instrument, preferably an electronic organ without pipes.
By the late ’70s, FBC decision-makers had accepted the Organ Committee’s view that the MMO was too expensive to continue with and an electronic Baldwin organ was purchased to replace it. This decision wasn’t exactly embraced by long-term members at First. But it was ultimately understood to be financially necessary.
The Baldwin organ which was bought by First Baptist in the late 1970s, in its turn, was replaced in the early 1990s with the current electronic organ.
The pipe organ had had its day at First; there was no turning back.
¹Jesse Williams had moved to North Vancouver by the time the organ was installed; his membership was transferred to a Baptist congregation in that municipality (which congregation he moved to wasn’t specified in First’s membership book).
²Dale McIntosh, History of Music in British Columbia. Victoria: Sono Nis Press, 1989, pp. 88-90.
My thanks to Mary Cramond, Linda Zlotnik, Erika Voth, Darryl Downton, Anita Bowes, Tom Carter, and Edna Grenz for responding with generosity to my questions related to this subject.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Ay-Laung Wang,
Organist at First Baptist Church for more than 20 years.