Traditional hymns have long been a mainstay of the Episcopal Church. But on the second Sunday of the month, the liturgical music at the 9:10 a.m. service St. Edward’s Episcopal Church might turn “Rock of Ages” into rock ’n’ roll. That’s when St. Edward’s 12-member praise band takes the stage.
The band has been around for roughly a quarter of a century and over time has featured performers on trumpets, cellos, guitars and even a viola.
“It sort of grew out of our youth group,” Randy Westgate, the band’s spokesman, said. “I started learning how to play the guitar when my wife and I were doing the youth group here and found out there was a lot of good, contemporary Christian music out there.”
When the youth group would go on retreats, the adult leaders would enlist everyone to sing or play an instrument.
The praise band began with three guitarists playing at 4 p.m. on occasional Sundays.
“It was not an ideal time,” Westgate acknowledged.
Eventually the group’s music was incorporated into the regular church service.
“Our praise band service is a liturgical service,” Westgate said, “very similar to the service you would find in the Episcopal Church.”
The group looks for music that fits with the liturgy and the Gospel lesson of the day.
Since the days of that guitar trio, they have added members. Mike Freshwater played guitar with a rock band in the 1960s, but he hadn’t picked up a guitar in years until Westgate approached him about playing in the band.
Pianist Patrick Ishler is St. Edward’s music director and a music teacher at Dover Area School District in York County. He and his wife, Dina, also a music educator, were looking for a church when they stopped at St. Edward’s.
He described their initial visit as “Divine intervention.”
The church, he said, was “looking for a choir director at the time and everything just fell into place,” he said.
“The Holy Spirit is always involved,” Dina added.
The Ishlers’ son, Thomas, plays guitar in praise band and is a member of the Warwick High School Jazz Band.
Percussionist Harold Morrow has played in a number bands over the years and also is a member of the Bainbridge Band. Other instrumentalists are Maeve Milligan, who has been playing flute since second grade, and violinist and marimba player Rosie Westgate.
Vocalists include Dina Ishler, Ellen Milligan, Beth and Seth Hake, and Amy Swiernik, who also serves as the group’s archivist.
While much of what they play is contemporary Christian music — “We do a really neat communion song (‘Remembrance’) by Matt Redman,” Westgate said — they also add their own spin to hymns.
“We did a Jimmy Buffet arrangement of an Epiphany hymn,” he said.
“The Episcopal Church relies strongly on our hymnal because of our long heritage of music,” Dina Ishler said. “What has worked really well in this service is to take music that is more traditional ... and put our feel on it.”
But it’s not always jazzed up.
At last year’s Christmas Eve service, they performed what Westagte described as “contemplative” music.
“Randy does a lot of arranging and will score out music for the flute or violin,” Freshwater said.
Occasional blended services
The church also has occasional blended services in which the praise band and the choir perform.
Ellen Milligan said one of the most enjoyable parts of the praise band service occurs during the recessional.
“When we get to the last song, we pass out instruments — maracas — and anyone who wants to can play along,” she said.
“They can make a joyful noise,” Morrow said.
Night of Praise
First Presbyterian Church, Strasburg, will host a Night of Praise from 7-8 p.m. March 2.
The service will feature an hour of contemporary praise music as a way to enter the Lenten season, which begins March 6.
Tess Miller, director of contemporary music at the church, said while Night of Praise will be a first for the church, the praise band has long been a part of the church.
“Since October of 2011, we have had a weekly contemporary service with a praise band,” she said. “But for years before that we had a praise team that played with a previous pastor, the Rev. Steve Clark.”
In addition to Miller, other members of the praise band include Walter Kondratowski, Jane Geiger and Phil Geiger.
“I believe the praise band offers a second style of worship,” Miller said. “Some people enjoy traditional music with an organ and a choir, but now they can also enjoy a more contemporary sound.”
Night of Praise will take place in the church’s sanctuary. Child care is available.