Dear Friends – It saddens me to tell you that Cliff McPhaden, our phenomenal choir master and music director, is leaving us.
In fact, has left us. Not being one for long, sentimental goodbyes, Cliff decided that our glorious Easter Sunday was exactly the note on which he wanted to leave. And so far, I’ve been unsuccessful in my efforts to convince him to come back for at least one more Sunday, so we can give him a more fitting sendoff. But then, Cliff always has been one to do things on his own terms.
Though we had him just a short time, Cliff has been a precious gift to St. James. And to me, in particular. When I was interviewing for the job of priest-in-charge last summer with the vestry, I told them that the first thing I wanted to do was bring back the choir at St. James. Of course, at the time I had no idea how. I just knew we needed a choir.
I could not have foreseen that on Oct. 2, my very first Sunday here, we would have a visitor … a visitor who just happened to be a retired choir director, looking for a new church home. Coincidence? I think not. Cliff and I went to coffee that next week, and I asked him if he would consider helping us start a choir.
He warned me that he was a known troublemaker. He told me that I would have to let him do things his way, and that he could be persnickety. And he reminded me that he was 82 years old, and wasn’t sure how long his health would permit him to carry on. I agreed to all his terms. He immediately took over as our music director – at a salary of $0 per week – and he began recruiting a choir.
By the first Sunday of November, we started having special music each week. On the first Sunday of Advent, our choir debuted. Cliff coached and mentored them, now and then recruiting a guest singer to join them. The results were astounding, and the pride he instilled in our choir remarkable.
Most of Cliff’s warnings to me were unwarranted. He never caused trouble. Well, not much anyway. He never was persnickety. In fact, it was Cliff’s years of experience that week after week proved a lifesaver to this inexperienced priest, and it was his reassurance that steadied me when I wavered. But one warning proved prescient: Age-related health issues are preventing him from doing all he wants to do. He’s now weighing some major decisions, including a possible move out of state to be closer to family.
“This is not as I had planned nor hoped for,” Cliff told the choir members. “My heart aches at the necessity to leave with the growth and development just happening in a healthy solid beginning.”
So Cliff may be gone, but his legacy at St. James will continue. Gretchen Timmer, our organist, will step up to take over as music director and choir master. The choir is committed to continuing on the path that Cliff envisioned. We will keep growing, keep singing, keep making the worship experience at St. James sound lovely.
Come summer, the choir will take a break, but we’ll endeavor to continue to provide special music as often as possible. And in the fall, the choir will return, hopefully bigger and better than ever.
All in all, I’m pretty sure we’ve witnessed a miracle here at St. James. You might even call it a resurrection or sorts. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to Cliff McPhaden. Without him, none of this would have happened.
So Godspeed, Cliff! Our prayers are with you. You are a gift and a blessing.