First candlelight tour opens church doors

Grace Lutheran Church director of music and organist, Daniel Hannemann, said the stage at the historic church is set for his recitals as part of the first Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses of Worship in Winchester. Rachel Mahoney/Daily

WINCHESTER – Still decked out for Christmas with garlands and ornaments, a number of Winchester churches are opening their doors on Sunday for a special open house event after the holiday.

It’s the first year Winchester chapter members of the American Guild of Organists have organized efforts for a Candlelight Tour of Historic Houses of Worship with the cooperation of Winchester Ministerial Association and Old Town Winchester. Participating churches will be featuring mini organist recitals on the hour and half hour and presentations by docents on the quarter hour.

The self-guided tour will include eight churches in walking distance of each other downtown: Braddock Street United Methodist Church, Centenary United Church of Christ, Christ Episcopal Church, First Baptist Church, First United Methodist Church, First Presbyterian Church, Grace Lutheran Church and Market Street United Methodist Church.

“There are eight churches and 15 organists and 46 mini recitals, which I think is some kind of record for, certainly, Winchester,” said Winchester guild chapter Dean Steven Cooksey.

Organist repertoires won’t just include traditional Christmas hymns, either – Judy Connelly, minister of music and organist at Braddock Street United Methodist Church, said she’d be playing a few jazz pieces during her recitals. Some organists are planning to involve accompanists in their performances, which should run for around 10 minutes.

“The organists of the different churches are approaching it differently, so there’ll hopefully be a lot of variety,” Cooksey said.

Visitors will be able to get what Cooksey said is a rare glimpse of how the instruments work, and some of the churches will be offering special children’s programs around 3 p.m.

“For children to come around the instrument and sit on the bench, maybe even play a little bit, that’s going to be very exciting,” Connelly said.

Many of the sanctuaries and all of the parishes have a long history – some as old as the town itself. Daniel Hannemann, director of music and organist at Grace Lutheran Church, said his own parish dates back to 1753, the year after the city was officially founded.

“We limited the event to the walking area downtown because it is a historic district and these churches all date at least to the early 1800s,” he said.

Cooksey and Hannemann said timing the event to land a few days after Christmas was no accident, as Christmas decorations will already be set up and the candles will hopefully still be burning. Between the history, music and decorations, Hannemann said the event is a great opportunity for those in the area to get acclimated with the churches in a casual and family-friendly atmosphere.

“I’ve been in all these churches, but I’ve not been in any of them at holiday time because I’m so busy here – I don’t have the opportunity,” he said. “There’s a lot to be shared from all of us with each other.”

The organizers said they modeled the event on a similar program that’s been a tradition in Frederick, Maryland, for 30 years.

“In Frederick, it’s a really big thing: they close off the streets downtown and 1,000 people come,” Cooksey said. “We were inspired by them, but then we went off on our own route.”

One defining feature of the Winchester tour is that during the event, each church will be accepting donations toward Winchester Area Temporary Thermal Shelter.

Despite landing the event a couple of days after Christmas, members of the guild are looking to give tourgoers from both within the city and out of town a true taste for the season before breaks and vacations are over and the decorations wilt.

“We’re unusual that we have a number of churches close together with wonderful instruments and wonderful players,” Cooksey said. “We hope to spread the Christmas spirit by having people come and see the beautiful decorations and hear some wonderful music.”

IF YOU GO: 2-5 p.m. Dec. 27 at eight participating churches in downtown Winchester. This is a free event. Read the event program online at http://tinyurl.com/p5rcr8t.

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com