How music saved the oldest Anglican church in Chile

Every Sunday, St. Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Valparaíso, Chile, opens its doors at noon to welcome visitors who come to listen to concerts. This routine is played on a century-old organ that has kept the church alive for 30 years.

Built in 1858, Saint-Paul brought together the British community that had settled in Valparaíso, the country’s main port, after Chile’s independence from the Spanish Empire in 1818. The city has become a turning point for immigrants, led by the British and Germans, who were followed by the Italians, French and Spanish.

During the 20th century, many members of these communities immigrated to the nearby town of Viña del Mar or to the capital, Santiago. With fewer parishioners to serve, St. Paul’s deteriorated. The situation was dire when Oenone Gray, along with his friend Roland Geddes, who died in 2003, launched an effort to save the church.

Visitors to St. Paul’s in Valapraíso, Chile, celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee earlier this month, with organ music performed by Ítalo Olivares.
Graciela Ibánez via Zenger

Gray, now 88, along with Geddes and Valparaíso native Jorge Cavajal, created the St. Paul Restoration Committee in 1990.

Water would enter the church on rainy days back then, and the organ with the inscription VIR (for Victoria Imperatrix Regina) would fall apart. Many of the organ notes weren’t sounding, so Geddes concentrated on those.

“He loved music,” Gray said. “He started going to church and started fixing the organ.”

Built by Forster and Andrews in England, the Queen Victoria Memorial Organ arrived in Valparaíso in 1902. An 8.2 magnitude earthquake in 1906 destroyed much of the city and damaged the organ. Forster and Andrews staff came to Valparaíso to restore it in 1910, and for the next 80 years it underwent minimal repairs.

Ítalo Olivares, who has been playing the organ since 1980, said Geddes passed on his passion for repairing the instrument to Christian Sundt, the organist now in charge of its upkeep.

“St. Paul’s organ is one of the best in Chile,” Olivares said. “And it’s alive. You can listen to his music.”

The organ has 33 families of tubes and 1,604 pipes of various sizes, according to the church’s website.

Chile lacks organist culture compared to neighboring Argentina or European countries. Many of these instruments have deteriorated, and there has been little interest in Chile to repair them, Olivares said. He came to St. Paul’s as a music student and asked the pastor for permission to practice. The pastor agreed on the condition that Olivares play the Sunday service for free. Since then, he has remained organist at St. Paul’s.

English engineer William Henry Lloyd, who had come to Chile to build railway bridges, erected St. Paul’s. It was a time when there was no religious freedom in Chile, so the new building had to be discreet. It had small windows and no main door. It also had no spire, cross or steeple on the exterior. The goal was to furnish it in such a way that the building would look like one more house in the hillside district of Cerro Concepción.

St. Paul in Valparaíso, Chile
Another interior view of San Paolo, with the organ behind the grille, in Valparaíso, Chile.
Graciela Ibánez via Zenger

St. Paul’s was the first Anglican church in Chile and the west coast of South America. Partial religious freedom came seven years after it was erected in 1865. In 1979, the Chilean government declared St. Paul’s Basilica a historical monument. In 2016, it became a cathedral.

Built in a single nave Gothic Revival style, the church covers an area of ​​5,415 square feet. Lloyd employed cutting-edge techniques using laminated Oregon pine beams fastened with nails and screws to form the arches of the ceiling. The building has a chancel and chancel separated by a root screen from the nave. It also has a baptistery with three stained glass windows.

At the time of the construction of Saint-Paul, Valparaíso was a prosperous port. Its location on the Cape Horn sea route to and from Europe helped foster trade and develop nascent Chile. In 1840, British and German immigrants began to urbanize what is now the tourist Cerro Concepción and the nearby hill of Cerro Alegre. St. Paul’s records show that sailors, merchants, masons, piano makers, shipbuilders, musicians, candle makers, artists and engineers were among those who attended the church, according its website.

While Italians were more numerous in the city at the end of the 19th century, the British were more influential. In 1823, they started a project with the Germans to build a new cemetery which would later be called Cimetière des Dissidents. It was located on the current hill of Panteón. The district was then on the outskirts of the city.

Today it is also a tourist spot 800 meters from Cerro Concepción. For decades, this cemetery was the only place in Chile where Protestants could be buried. Following the construction of the cemetery, the British community built St. Paul’s.

“My great-grandfather was one of the first to donate money for the building of the church,” Gray said. His parents got married there. Then she, her daughter and her grandson did. Four generations of his family have walked down the same aisle.

In 1995, the church’s restoration committee started a program called Music in the Heights to attract visitors. These free 30-45 minute organ concerts take place every Sunday at 12:30 p.m. and are the only regular organ concerts in Chile. Usually around 20-30 people attend, mostly tourists visiting Valparaíso and people who have come specifically to listen to the organ. “The relationship with the public is very warm,” Olivares said.

“The organ has always been the heart of the church,” Gray said. When she and Geddes started working together, there was no longer an Anglican community to fill the building. “So it occurred to us to do something with the music,” she said. “It’s all been absolutely chimerical,” she added with a laugh.

In recent years, Christine Evans, a former teacher at St. Margaret’s British School for Girls in Viña del Mar, and Gray’s niece Michelle Prain, a college professor and author of the book British Heritage in Valparaíso, joined the committee. In the process of restoration, they received donations from neighbors, friends and a local business.

Exterior of St. Paul's Church
The exterior of St. Paul’s Church, the first Anglican church established in Chile.
Graciela Ibánez via Zenger

Other sources of income include renting St. Paul’s for weddings and music lessons and donations from visitors who attend Sunday concerts. The Anglican Episcopal Church Corporation provides a grant that covers water and electricity bills, and the Cerro Concepción Neighborhood Union helps by painting graffiti when it appears on church walls.

Fixing gutters, repairing windows and changing flooring are the most pressing issues. The cathedral has 20 stained glass windows imported from England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With earthquakes and shaking so common in Chile, “the stained glass windows bent and some broke,” Prain said.

Instead of the regular June 5 concert, St. Paul’s celebrated Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee. The service was presided over by the Bishop of Valparaíso and attended by British descendants, the British Ambassador to Chile, students from the four British schools in Viña del Mar and firefighters from the 11th Fire Company “George Garland” , founded by 13 British citizens in Valparaíso in 1901.

Everyone listened to the organ played by Olivares, who had both the Chilean and British national anthems in his repertoire. It was a sunny day in which the organ once again proved to be the beating heart of the church.

Graciela Ibáñez is a journalist and translator with a Master of Arts from Columbia Journalism School, where she graduated in 2008. She works as a freelance journalist covering Chile for foreign media.

Produced in collaboration with unplugged religion.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.

Martha J. Finley