After 150 years, St. Joseph’s Church continues to thrive.
“We have a close-knit community,” said Mark Reilly, the church’s organist and music director since 1973. “There’s tremendous loyalty of the families who initially founded the church and the generations of those families. There are also those who attended the school when it was in session [the last classes graduated in the 1960s] and they remember the parish and come back and check us out and like what they see. Others come and just like the feeling of what’s here. And many churches have closed recently and we have gotten their members.”
To show an example of how connected the congregation is, Reilly said that on a recent Saturday, a woman came up to him and asked if what was happening was a funeral or a wedding.
“She attended two funerals and one wedding that day, and she’d been related to someone at each one,” he said laughing.
Albany Pro Musica and St. Joseph’s 150th anniversary
WHERE: St. Joseph’s Church, State and Lafayette streets, Schenectady
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $15
MORE INFO: 331-8047, 346-6402, www.albanypromusica.org
To celebrate the church’s sesquicentennial, Albany Pro Musica will give a special concert on Sunday that will honor the church’s German heritage, with works by Bach, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Brahms and Bruckner. Because the church is now home to several other nationalities, music director David Griggs-Janower has also programmed several spirituals, folk songs and pop tunes by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and James Taylor, among others.
German immigrants had been settling in the Schenectady area and Schoharie Valley since the early 1700s. By the 1830s, German Catholics, many from Bavaria, began to settle in the areas around College and Albany streets and Van Vranken Avenue to set up as shopkeepers or farmers, many growing broom corn, a crop Schenectady became famous for in the 19th century.
In 1859, many of these settlers met to form a committee to set up their own church. But bickering over how large a structure should be built and the problem of insufficient funds delayed any decisions.
Joseph Harrecker, a farmer, cabinetmaker and machinist who had emigrated from Bavaria in 1855 and settled in the Guilderland area, ended the squabbling. In 1861, he purchased property for $2,000 at Center and Franklin streets, and donated it to the committee.
Within the year, the church’s renovation was complete with a new altar and the church committee, which had originally intended to consecrate the congregation in the name of Saint Peter, decided instead to name it Saint Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church. Harrecker also later provided the land for the church’s cemetery.
As the congregation grew, a larger building was needed and in 1865, a deed for the property at the church’s current site on State Street was obtained. By 1878, the new church in German Gothic style with high vaulted ceilings was opened. Built at a cost of $41,000, it was designed by M.F. Cummings of Troy. Pews were made of chestnut, elaborate frescos, murals and molding work adorned the interior, and nine stained glass windows with geometric patterns were placed. Materials, including more than a half a million bricks, and workmanship came from local firms. Over the many years that followed, more renovations were done, most notably in 1921 installing a pipe organ and replacing the original windows with the famed Mayer of Munich stained glass windows.
Known for their strong colors, busy details and strong imagery, the windows are a glorious amalgamation of balanced composition and intricate architectural framing that depict everything from the Annunciation and the Nativity, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the various saints from St. Anthony of Padua, St. Agnes, St. Michael the Archangel and St. Rose of Lima to St. Aloysius of Gonzaga and St. Cecilia, patron saint of music.
Throughout all these years, music has been a large part of the church’s history, Reilly said. In the first years, a hand-pumped organ was used and prominent local choruses and musicians were invited to perform. Choruses were formed with girls from the church’s academies often singing at funerals and the boys pumping the organ’s bellows.
When Reilly took over in 1973, he decided to revitalize the chorus, which now numbers about 12 on a seasonal basis.
“Parishioners are musically interested,” he said. “Every week there’s music from congregational singing to playing at Mass. It’s traditional to add some new hymns from the hymnal to the singing of the German hymns.”
In keeping with tradition, the church decided about five years ago to inspire the community with more musical offerings.
“We wanted to capitalize on the renaissance in downtown, so we began to offer the church to chamber music groups, choruses and to give organ concerts,” Reilly said.
This will be the second time APM has performed at the church.
“We know the sound and like it,” Griggs-Janower said. “It’s modestly warm, so you can’t get away with anything. We’re very comfortable to sing there and we can hear well.”
He’ll bring a 65-voice chorus and an 18-piece chamber orchestra. The first half will be German-Austrian composers with pieces to include Bach’s “Song of Mary” from his “Magnificat” and some of his instrumental pieces; Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus”; Mendelssohn’s “Verleih uns Frieden”; and Brahms’ “Geistliches Lied.” Griggs-Janower said the Bach vocal selections are florid and because they’re not designed to be sung by so many singers, it will be tricky to make them sound not overly thick.
The second half will be lighter and this in itself will pose the chief challenge: to sing this range of repertoire and give all the pieces their own style and expressiveness.
“Lots of people can do the technique and words, but it’s not enough to have the right color,” he said.
“You must get the right expressions. I tell them a lot of things: where the phrase points are, what word is the most important. Our instruments are inside us, so we must have internal understanding to make it external.”