Portsmouth church hopes music can help revive attendance

Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater sing an a cappella song during services Sunday at St. Paul's. Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater sing an a cappella song during services Sunday at St. Paul's.

Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater sing an a cappella song during services Sunday at St. Paul's.

Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater sing an a cappella song during services Sunday at St. Paul’s.

PORTSMOUTH —  It’s just one idea, but St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is banking on dulcimers, tin whistles, mandolins and heavenly voices as a way of breathing new life into a dwindling congregation.

The folk duo Atwater-Donnelly has been booked to play music at the church’s 9 a.m service on the first Sunday of each month through April 2014.

“We’re trying to get more people in the door and let people know we’re still here,” said Jeffrey Reise, St. Paul’s junior warden.

St. Paul’s has been here for some time; its 180th anniversary is just three weeks off.

“Christmas Day 1833 was the first service at St. Paul’s,” said Mr. Reise.

Aubrey Atwater plays the tin whistle, also known as a penny whistle.

Aubrey Atwater plays the tin whistle, also known as a penny whistle.

The iconic building — until you get closer, it appears to sit smack dab in the middle of East Main Road — was designed by architect Russell Warren, who also came up with the plans for the Westminster Arcade in Providence and Linden Place and the Bristol Statehouse in Bristol.

As is the case with many churches in recent years, St. Paul’s has struggled to fill the pews as members have died off, passed away or simply aren’t showing up in the same numbers as before.

“We were a much bigger congregation, especially in the ’80s,” said Mr. Reise, adding that the church can’t afford a full-time priest. “St. Paul’s used to have 150 to 200 people. The regular group now is about 25. Once upon a time we had three services, and the 10 c’clock service was filled.”

Hoping to revive interest in the services, friend and church member Linda Remington contacted the husband-and-wife folk duo of Aubrey Atwater and Elwood Donnelly, who moved to Warren about a year and a half ago.

Ms. Remington is also involved in Common Fence Music and is a member of the Portsmouth Arts Guild, which rents the parish hall next door — “That’s part of our support; it helps pay the bills,” said Mr. Reise. The Rev. Evangeline (Becky) Anderson, who led Sunday’s service, also knows the band well.

“We know Becky — she’s a fan — and Linda,” said Ms. Atwater. “It was a few years ago when Linda got us here to do a service and she got the idea for us to do something more regular.”

Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater lead the congregation of St. Paul's in the singing of an old spiritual.

Elwood Donnelly and Aubrey Atwater lead the congregation of St. Paul’s in the singing of an old spiritual.

Hopefully, church members say, fans of the band and other music lovers will come out to the services. “That’s the idea, because we were starting pretty much from scratch again,” said Rev. Anderson.

Mixing it up

Atwater-Donnelly is primarily known for its performances and educational programs on traditional Appalachian, Celtic and original folk music and dance. It tinkers with its set list for houses of worship, however.

“We actually go to a lot of churches in the United States, as we’re occasionally asked and hired to do services,” said Ms. Atwater. “It’s interesting to see how formal it can be or how loose. We mix it up each time.”

On Sunday the duo blended originals such as Mr. Donnelly’s “Beginning With You” (“It’s about our relationship between comfort and peace,” said Ms. Atwater) with traditional tunes like “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” more commonly known as “Down by the Riverside,” a song she used to sing at war protests.

Atwater-Donnelly relocated to Warren about a year and a half ago.

Atwater-Donnelly relocated to Warren about a year and a half ago.

“It makes us tap into songs that we don’t usually do in our regular repertoire, and delve into all the familiar songs that we all know — ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ — songs that I always took for granted. They’re great songs,” Ms. Atwater said.

Services an intimate affair

The Rev. Anderson has a disarming, folksy quality in her sermons. On Sunday she drew parallels between the John Travolta movie “Get Shorty” and the coming of God as depicted in the Gospel of Matthew.

(In the movie, a mafia boss dies of a heart attack after arriving at a surprise birthday party. “We don’t really like surprises; we want to know what’s coming,” she said, noting that the lesson from Matthew is similar. “There will be no warning signs for the coming of God, Jesus says.”)

Watch a video of Atwater-Donnelly performing “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” (commonly known as “Down By the Riverside”) during services at St. Paul’s on Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013. 

One positive thing has come out of the small attendance levels at St. Paul’s: Everyone knows one another. During the “sign of peace” portion of the service Sunday, people walked around the church to greet every member, not just the ones in their immediate vicinity.

“This has gotten us back to interacting with each other more,” said Mr. Reise.

Still, he and others say putting more people in the seats is key to a vibrant congregation. Maybe music’s the answer.

“It’s one of those things,” said Mr. Reise. “You get more and more people and it grows, it grows, it grows. This is part of that effort.

“And we like their music as well.”

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