Mission Hills U.C.C. Celebrates 100 Years of Its Pipe Organ with a Centennial Recital by Alison Luedecke

Centennial observances appear to be the newest trend in San Diego churches. A large banner in front of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in North Park heralds that congregation’s 100th anniversary, and across town in Mission Hills, the Mission Hills United Church of Christ has launched a concert series to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its pipe organ.

Alison Luedecke [photo courtesy of the artist]

Following a February event with the San Diego Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, the next event on the Mission Hills anniversary organ series will be an April 21, 2024  afternoon organ recital played by Alison Luedecke, a nationally known performer who is also Organist/Choir Director at Church of the Nativity in Rancho Santa Fe. Recently, members of the Mission Hills staff and Alison Luedecke met with SanDiegoStory to give some background about the instrument as well as the 100th anniversary project.

“The Mission Hills organ was installed in 1924 by the Austin Organ Company of Hartford, Connecticut,” explained Kristopher Abels, the church’s Director of Instrumental Music, who plays the instrument every Sunday. “Most significantly, the Austin company had built the Spreckels Organ in Balboa Park in 1915,” a factor that no doubt influenced the congregation to select Austin to build their instrument.

Abels noted that the dedicatory organ recital was given by John Doane, an accomplished organist from New York who was the son of the congregation’s founding minister. Doing a bit of research, Abels discovered a copy of Doane’s dedicatory program and persuaded Alison Luedecke to include one of the major works from that recital, Alexandre Guilmant’s “Funeral March and Seraphic Song” in her upcoming recital. Since April 22, 2024, marks the annual Earth Day celebration, the congregation asked Luedecke to include programming that would highlight that observance. On her program she will include Hal Hopson’s Concertato on the familiar hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth” and Mary Beth Bennett’s Prelude on the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

Luedecke also came across the late Belgian composer Flor Peeters’ Lied Symphony. “This is a vividly pictorial work, inspired by the composer’s American concert tour of 1947. In his own words, the Symphony is a ‘thanksgiving hymn for nature in God’s creation’,” Luedecke added.

“We are fortunate to have a great many organ enthusiasts in the congregation,” said the Rev. David Bahr, the Mission Hills U.C.C. pastor. “The church members appreciate Kris’s beautiful use of the organ in the service, and they sit and listen every Sunday to his Postlude and give a round of applause at the end.” Bahr added that like many congregations, the members’ musical expectations vary greatly, so the worship planners embrace and include a wide variety of musical styles. “But Kris is very creative. Even in a big Gospel song where the piano takes the lead, he is able to add the organ to the piece in a supportive way.”

Although much of the pipework of the original 19-rank 1924 Austin organ remains within the current instrument, it has been expanded and improved over the years. In 1980, a grant from San Diego’s First Congregational Corporation allowed for a significant expansion of the organ under the direction of San Diego organ technician Eugene Ginder, including the exposed Principal ranks displayed on the front of the organ grill, as well as some new reeds and mutations within. And in 2007, the El Cajon-based L. W. Blackinton and Associates firm built and installed the organ’s current solid state three-manual console and added a brightly-voiced Festival Trumpet rank to the organ, bringing the total number of ranks to 33.

In addition to Alison Luedecke’s April 21 recital, the Centennial Organ project will continue with Kristopher Abels’ solo recital on June 23, 2024, and on Sunday, September 22, 2024, at a special anniversary morning worship service, the commissioned anthem by Stephen Sturk, “God, We Gather at This Table” will be premiered by the church choir.

Alison Luedecke’s organ recital will be presented at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, April 21, 2024 in the sanctuary of the Mission Hills United Church of Christ.

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