We possess little extant information concerning music at Holy Cross in its very earliest years. The church presumably did possess an organ, probably a pump organ, by at least 1896, as the following 1 October diary entry from Annie McAboy Wilcox (Mrs. Lemuel) suggests.
Bright beautiful morning. Nellie (Sterns), Lillie, Edwin and Frank Wilcox have gone to the Church to decorate it for the wedding of Jennie Williams and Harold Doubleday. We all dressed and went over to the Episcopal Church to the wedding….The Church was pretty filled with people, all looked handsome. Lem, my husband, and Edwin, my son, played the organ and the violin; the music was beautiful.
Considering the church’s founding in 1884 as a mission, that instrument was probably a harmonium.
Information is limited too about exactly when Holy Cross’s choir began. Although the following Vestry minutes entry dated 11 December evidences that there was an informal volunteer choir by 1909: “the Vestry will appreciate any extra effort by the choir for Christmas music.” The musical offerings from this period surely consisted mainly of solo and/or hymn arrangements appropriate to a given feast day or liturgical season and were sung only by the choir and even then probably not on a weekly basis.
Discussions ensued in 1914 to incorporate the choir materially into the weekly worship service. The upcoming renovations to the then Church, now Chapel, (which resulted in, among other things, the addition of the apse) seemed an ideal time to install pews for the choir. With the relocation of the altar to the apse, the choir took its formal place in the transept beyond the 1905 Anna Mines memorial rood (relocated to its present position in 1953).
It is in connection with the aforementioned renovations that we have first mention of a pipe organ at Holy Cross. The two manual and pedal instrument, donated by Miss Mary Chandler Beach in 1915 as a memorial to Martha Gilbert, would serve the parish’s musical needs until 1946. The organ committee for the organ’s purchase included then Vestrymen Francis.P. Bacon, Henry Bray, and J.F. Searles. While no textual information exists about the first organist to play the instrument, oral tradition provides a likely candidate in the person of area artist Mr. Louis Rowell, lately arrived from Paris, who, according to Dorothy Doubleday, Sylvia Moore’s mother, was the organist who had played at her 1918 wedding.
When Rowell began his position, and how long he continued it, is open to speculation. However, a Vestry minutes entry dated 10 February 1920 is notable and records an invitation to Mrs. John Wilcox to become parish organist. Her response to that invitation is unrecorded.
That the choral program was developing satisfactorily in 1920 is lent support by the following draft of a note of thanks to one Mrs. Clemons, who at the very least was then the choir director, and who may, in fact, have replaced Rowell at the console.
Resolved, That the Rector and Vestry of the Church of the Holy Cross, wishing to show their appreciation of the excellent work done by Mrs. Clemons in training the church choir, hereby tender her a vote of thanks, with the hope that she will continue the good work. (written on the verso side of H.N. Bowne’s Report on the Rector’s Fund dated 1 July 1920)
During this period, support for music purchases came directly from the Rector’s Fund, an account supported initially wholly by the fund-raising activities of the St. Agnes Guild and the Women’s Auxilary. The following disbursement for the Quarter ending April 1st, 1921 is perhaps telling about the music library’s modest beginnings: “to church music …$4.14.”
The arrival of the Rev. Charles Burnett and his wife in 1922 marked the beginning of a period of growth and revitalization at Holy Cross, one that heralded choral services much as we know them today. Rev. Burnett’s wife, Helen, assumed leadership of the church’s music program in 1922 shortly after the couple’s arrival, and she would continue to serve as volunteer organist and choirmaster throughout the 1920s. During her tenure, she inaugurated the church’s first boy’s choir comprised of only four members—Allen Jervey, Jr.; Bob Burnett; Pink Williams; and Bill Burnett. She (they) further vested the choir and instituted choir processions. Her single most important innovation though was to inaugurate regular congregational singing—rehearsals for which occurred immediately after the Sunday morning service. After seven years and for reasons never personally expressed, Mrs. Burnett stepped down from her post in the summer of 1929. Her decision was perhaps influenced by current discussions about expansion possibilities, and music seems as viable a means as many to promote new growth. Regardless, in late 1929, mere weeks before the disastrous market crash, the Vestry authorized a new paid staff position to oversee the parish’s music program.
Accordingly, Rev. Burnett hired Mr. James Alderson in October at a salary of $150 per month for eight months, the sum of which was to be drawn from the Mary Brady Berry Fund. Though the salary was apparently considerably less than he was making at the time, Alderson accepted the offer. The Vestry’s move to a paid position was indeed “a leap of faith,” and the Rev. Charles Burnett’s letter of employment to Alderson, dated 13 September 1929, sidewise reveals his own fiscal concerns about the action.
“[These eight months] will give ample opportunity to ascertain just what can be done in the way of improving our Church Music and testing the ability of the Parish to support such an advanced program.”
Alderson’s service was to be short-lived, and his resignation in January 1930 was no doubt much influenced by the hardships of the unfolding Great Depression. His most notable innovation to the choral program was to incorporate the younger boy’s choir into the adult Choir.
Burnett’s letter continues: “I am glad you approve of having the children in the regular Parish Choir. It is valuable training for them, and their presence Sunday after Sunday helps to create a wholesome atmosphere; young and old having their part in our public worship.”
Understandably, the following year was to be one of great uncertainty, which, of course, affected every aspect of church life, including music. For example, another short-term appointment soon followed Alderson’s resignation, when Burnett engaged Mr. Edgar C. Thompson to fill the vacated dual position. However, the finances proving burdensome, his contract was not renewed after June 1930.
In late September, Burnett hired Mrs. Louise Richardson of Saluda. This time the position paid one-third the former rate, i.e., $50 per month, with duties only to play the organ. Richardson would hold the organ position for at least the next five years at an increasingly reduced salary. For instance, her 1930 salary of $400 per annum
was reduced to $275 in 1932 and further reduced to $250 in 1933. In view of the fiscal hardships of the period, it is conceivable and even likely that Mrs. Burnett once again took up her former volunteer position as choir director. Other than a 1935 Christmas memorial of new choir stalls, given by Francis P. Bacon to honor his recently deceased wife, Anna, no further records exist about the music program at Holy Cross until Dr. R.A. Laslett Smith assumed leadership of the Holy Cross music program in 1944.
A consummate musician and member of the Royal College of Organists, the English born and educated Dr. Smith held his post for what has been described by Katharine Spivey as a “glorious decade of indescribably beautiful music.” Smith had an engaging personality and a decided preference for the Anglo-Catholic musical tradition in which he had been educated. It is an understatement to say that his contributions to the program were significant. For example, he more than tripled the size of the fledgling boy’s choir by opening trials up to all area individuals, and he greatly increased the numbers in the adult choir. Furthermore, he added a girl’s choir in the early 1950s. Moreover, in an optimistic show of early post-war enthusiasm, he supervised the design, contract negotiations, and installation of the new 3-manual Moeller organ purchased in 1946. Wholly English in concept, the new organ presented to Smith infinite new possibilities for raising the instrumental and choral musical standard, a task that he approached with indefatigable energy until his retirement in 1954, only one year after the move to the new sanctuary.
Hand in hand with Dr. Smith’s more expansive music program is the formal founding of the church’s choral library. This contribution alone could easily be deemed his greatest, and most lasting, legacy to us. Even a cursory title perusal yields ample evidence of his propensity for promoting high quality, church music, suitable to Anglican communal worship. Conspicuous among the early holdings are standard classics by Bach and Mozart, with a strong showing of later Romantic European composers, as well as a representative showing of the more “modern” English works by such eminent Victorians as John Stainer and his Edwardian followers. If Dr. Smith is to be deemed a worthy among Holy Cross musicians, so too can an even greater claim be made for William T. Bradley.
Roger Schaffer and Alan Calhoun comprised the search committee in August of 1954 to find Smith’s replacement. They were indeed fortunate to have by September located Bradley, a Spartanburg native then serving a congregation in Scranton, PA.
Bill Bradley proved himself to be a well-qualified successor to Smith, and like Smith, he was greatly admired and genuinely loved. Revealingly, both Bradley and his wife, Ginny, were graduates of the Julliard School of Music, and each in their own way enhanced Holy Cross’s music program.
Bradley maintained the very high musical standard first set by Dr. Smith, and he clearly brought his own taste and expertise to bear on that musical standard. His local organ recitals are yet remembered for their close attention to the broadest range of historical and contemporary American and European organ performance repertory. He, too, gave assiduous attention to the music library, purchasing fully one-half of the present four hundred plus titles in the library. He further created the church’s first Junior Choir, possibly as a response to dwindling available human resources in the boy’s and girl’s choirs, but possibly too because of changing fashions in church music, i.e., mixed ensemble musical compositions. Conversely, Ginny Bradley left her mark on the program as well. For instance, it is she who promoted the idea of a Handbell Choir, the first in the area, and it is she acted for many years as its director. Their twenty-eight years of service to Holy Cross stand as an enduring testament love of and dedication to our church
Following Bradley’s retirement in late 1982, a difficult period ensued. Alarmingly few organists were even being trained to play, much less conduct, and even fewer were available for permanent hire. During the next five years, Holy Cross relied on a series of short-term appointments, each lasting only a little more than a year, with the slack being otherwise taken up by a supply organist when one could be found.
In quick succession followed, Dr. John Turnbull in 1983, and Margaret (Maggie) Hopper, then wife of Converse College organ Professor, Larry Smith, in late1984. In fact, Turnbull and Hopper actually exchanged positions with one another, with Hopper coming to Holy Cross and Turnbull going to the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg. Hopper’s relocation in early 1986 necessitated her resignation, and the position was briefly filled by Presbyterian College organ professor Karen Eschelmann.
The noted composer and performer, Sam Batt Owens, then teaching at Christ School in Arden, NC, came to Holy Cross in 1987. An internationally famous organ performer and clinician, Owens composed well over three hundred anthems, many of which yet remain the choral performance repertory today. Unfortunately however, after a tumultuous, several months of poor working relations between then Rector Jim Reynolds and him, Owens resigned in the earliest hours of Easter Day 1988, leaving his resignation letter on the music rack of the organ to be found by the earliest arrivers at Church. Stupefied by Owens’s audaciously rash act, a quick solution was immediately sought.
Francis Jackson, a longstanding member of the church, intervened and suggested that her friend Joseph H. Armbrust, Jr., recently retired to Saluda, be called to play the Easter Day service. Fortunately, Armbrust was at home and available. He came down the mountain immediately; and what followed is something of a twenty-year family musical history.
An amiable and gentle man of North Carolina heritage, with a bitingly satiric sense of humor, Armbrust had been educated at the famed Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ, taking degrees in both organ performance and choral conducting. Post-graduate studies took him to Paris, France, where he studied for three years with Pierre Cochereau at Notre Dame Cathedral. Armbrust brought stability back to a music program then laboring under the strain of falling membership and much uncertainty about the future of the program. He also promoted music of a high Anglican stamp, very similar to that as had been done under the leaderships of Laslett Smith and William Bradley. Moreover, he drew upon his own musical background to further enhance the music library, adding a significant number of titles to the holdings. In 1994, like Smith before him, he oversaw the installation of a new organ, our present instrument by John Dower and Company, which represented to him the ideal liturgical instrument. At a then cost of over one-quarter of a million dollars (replacement cost now tripled), the instrument represents the crown jewel in Armbrust’s legacy to Holy Cross. Despite much failing health, he served Holy Cross well for a decade until July 1998 when he died from medical complications.
Dr. Crys Armbrust, Joseph’s son, served as Organist and Master of the Choristers from the day of his father’s death in 1998 until 2006. Holding a Ph.D in 17th and 19th century British literatures, with ancillary interests in music, architecture, art history, and horticulture, the musical “apple” did not fall far from the proverbial “tree.” He built upon the fine history laid down by his musical forbears at Holy Cross and continued in that fine tradition to promote musical performance in our church and local communities to even greater heights of musical excellence. During his tenure, beyond their rigorous, weekly offering of music repertory, the Holy Cross Choir did significantly musical performances and choir-in-residence performances in such notable venues as Washington National Cathedral, Carnegie Hall, St. Albans Cathedral, St. Georges Chapel, Windsor, and Canterbury Cathedral. Among Armbrust's other contributions to the worship life of Holy Cross--with the able partnership of Cindy Barnett--was the design concept and project work implementation of the 2003 Chancel and Altar renovations, in honor of the 50th anniversary in the "new" sanctuary. Soli Deo Gloria.
Dr. Mark Ardrey-Graves served as Director of Music at Holy Cross from 2007-2010. He studied music as an undergraduate at the University of Richmond, focusing on harpsichord, organ, and voice, and earned the MA in Performance Practice & Musicology and the Master of Divinity degree from Duke University.
During his years as director of music at Holy Cross, Mark continued the tradition of offering Choral Evensong at least twice a year. He was active in the musical arts community of Tryon. Mark established the Lenten recital series that Holy Cross still offers today, in which area and regional musicians perform noontime recitals on Wednesdays at noon.
In 2015, Mark completed a Doctor of Musical Arts in Conducting at James Madison University. He serves as organist at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Winston-Salem, NC, and divides his time between St. Timothy’s, teaching music classes at Guilford Tech Community College, and researching early English sacred music. Sara Ardrey-Graves, an Episcopal priest, is associate rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem.
Susie Mahnke served as Holy Cross's organist and choir director from 2010 until her retirement in September of 2021. She increased the numbers of choristers, hosted a wide variety of concerts and ministered to many people in Tryon and beyond. Her husband Kym was a faithful choir member and supporter of the music ministry.
Brennan Szafron was hired as organist and choir director in November 2021 following an 18 year tenure at the Episcopal Church of the Advent in Spartanburg, SC. He plays the organ, directs the chancel choir and handbell choir, and oversees the Bach's Lunch Wednesdays at Noon Recital Series. These recitals are performed by area musicians, and are well attended and appreciated by members of the Tryon community.
The Chancel Choir, a dedicated group of 20 singers, leads the music for Sunday morning worship services and additional liturgical services during the year.
Margaret Leach directed The Holy Cross Handbell Choir in 2011-2014. Susie Mahnke began directing the ringers in 2015. Brennan Szafron took over in 2021. The Handbell Choir rings three octaves of Malmark handbells (purchased in August 1979), and two octaves of choir chimes (purchased in October 2015). They ring monthly at Sunday morning worship services and at the 10:00 pm Christmas Eve service.
The church's grand piano (1933, 5'10 and 1/2" Steinway L), located in the nave, was purchased and rebuilt in 2012 with funds donated by parishioners. The piano is used for recitals and occasionally during worship services.
The 44-rank pipe organ, with four-manual Aeolian Skinner console, continues to be maintained by John Dower and Stephen Spake, owners of Lincoln Pipe Organs, Lincolnton, NC. Organ concerts are performed by world-renowned artists, including Paul Jacobs in 2015 (a concert sponsored in conjunction with Tryon Concert Association) and Thomas Strauss, from Germany, in 2016.
The Holy Cross Children's Choir is directed by Page Cargill. Jean Moore started the choir in 2017, and Page began directing in 2018. It is a growing, thriving group of children's voices.