Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village has a distinguished history. Founded in 1949 by the Rev. Robert Meneilly, a vociferous champion of civil rights, the church continues to make community involvement a priority.
Through its various charitable endeavors, such as the Front Porch Alliance, prison ministries and literacy initiatives, Village Presbyterian transforms lives.
In the midst of its charitable work, music has also been central to the church’s mission. The church has several choirs; a superb organist, Elisa Bickers; a newly hired director of music, Will Breytspraak; and now a brand new, $2 million organ.
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Bickers, principal organist and associate director of music ministry, will give a dedicatory recital on the new instrument Sunday, Aug. 20, and Wednesday, Aug. 23. The organ, built by Tennessee-based Richards, Fowkes & Co., replaces the Muller organ that was installed in 1982.
That organ, which had fallen into disrepair, presented hard choices for the congregation. Bickers, who has been principal organist for Village Presbyterian since 2009, recalls the dilemma.
“There was metal fatigue in many of the pipes, and they were leaking,” she said. “We could have chosen to repair them, but it would have been a Band-Aid, and eventually we would need to put on a new Band-Aid. So rather than deal with something that we would be constantly repairing for the rest of its life, we thought it would be a better use of our congregation’s funds to do something completely different.”
So Bickers enlisted Jan Kraybill, organist for Community of Christ and conservator of the Helzberg Hall organ, as a consultant, and together they put together a committee to find a replacement. Bickers and Kraybill instructed the committee on the fine points of the organ, and they traveled all over the country to hear various instruments. In the end, they decided on Richards, Fowkes.
“I don’t think there’s any better builder in the world,” Bickers said. “I played eight or nine of them around the country, and no matter if it was a large organ or a small organ, a great big room or a small room, all of those instruments had the perfect core for leading congregational singing, and that’s the primary purpose of this instrument.”
Bickers says the ability to accompany congregational singing was a paramount priority in selecting the new organ.
“Most of Richards, Fowkes’ instruments are based on 18th-century Dutch or German models, and that’s when congregational singing in the Reform tradition was really coming into its own,” Bickers said. “It makes people feel like they have something up under them. They’re not singing alone, exposed, but are surrounded by this wonderful sound.”
The new organ required reconfiguring the church’s layout. The organ is now at the front of the congregation, which Bickers says also aids in congregational singing.
“The organ pipes speak directly down the nave,” she said.
Bickers said the new organ, which is a mechanical action tracker instrument, is extremely versatile, capable of everything from Baroque music to over-the-top organ symphonies by 19th-century French composer Charles Widor. She hopes to give a whirlwind tour of the organ’s capabilities in her dedication recital.
“This is a concert meant to share the many colors and flavors of this organ, so it’s got pieces from the Renaissance and pieces that were written in the last five years and everything in between,” she said. “I’m doing a slow movement from a Widor symphony, a really lush, gorgeous piece. There shouldn’t be a dry eye in the house when it’s over.
“We’re also going to get that room full of people singing with the organ. The organ is only really complete when people are singing with it. That’s what she’s built for.”
Bickers, who grew up in Clinton, Md., and received her doctorate in organ performance from the University of Kansas, is one of Kansas City’s most highly regarded musicians. In addition to her duties at Village Presbyterian, she is the harpsichordist for the Bach Aria Soloists. Bickers is also strongly committed to Village Presbyterian — for more than just its music program.
“This is a really wonderful place to be,” she said. “There is a lot of attention paid to what we can do in the community as well as in the world. I just really admire that about a church. We can do wonderful things in worship and music, but we also make sure that our food pantry is well-stocked.”
3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, and 7 p.m. Aug. 23. Village Presbyterian Church, 6641 Mission Road, Prairie Village. Free. For more information, visit villagepres.org/village-pipe-organ.html