Conductors and organist fill Newton with music

| 25 Mar 2014 | 05:19

A pair of conductors and an organist have been filling the rafters of Christ Episcopal Church with music for more than 30 years.

For the past 35 years, Deborah and Joseph Mello have conducted the choirs at the church in Newton along with S. Gregory Shaffer, who has been the church's organist for 30 years.

The Conductors
The Mellos met in college and were wed in 1975 near Deborah's parents' home in Wayne. That same year, Joseph took a job at Kittatinny Regional High School.

"The superintendent and his wife liked to sing at the Newton Presbyterian Church, so we joined them," Joseph said.

He was searching for a choir director's job in addition to his teaching position when one became available at Christ Episcopal Church.

Joseph became the Music Director and Deborah the Children's Choir Director in 1979, and thus began a journey of creating music. The couple has three children, one in college, one an actress and one a professional actress.

Along with conducting the choir, Joseph delivers his baritone solo of hallelujahs as the preamble to Father Robert Griner's reading of the weekly Sunday Gospel.

The Organist
Shaffer, started playing the piano when he was five. He played the piano throughout his childhood and got his first church job at 11 in 1964 playing the piano at St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church in Oak Ridge.

When Shaffer was 13, he got his first organ playing job at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Mount Arlington.

Shaffer played piano and organ throughout high school and went to college for two years. He came home that summer and learned they had just fired the organist St. Mary's Episcopal Church, in Sparta, where his father was the rector. Shaffer filled in as the inter rum basis that summer, and when he was offered the full time position, decided to stay rather than returning to college, to pursue his career in music. He stayed at St. Mary's for more than eight years until one day, Joseph happened to visit and hear him play.

"I was very impressed with the organist I heard," Joseph said.

Shaffer then made the move to Newton.

With one brief hiatus, Shaffer, who lives in Roxbury, has been at Christ Church since 1981. He has two children in college, and his wife, Randi, comes to hear him play as much as she can depending on her job.

Shaffer said the biggest challenge of being a church organist is "expanding my repertoire of sacred music." He added, "Besides all of the material that we sing and I accompany in church, I have three to four thousand pieces that I play."

The Choir
"We've gone through all stages of life with the choir," Deborah said. "From births to deaths and from times of sorrow to times of joy and even singing at some of their weddings."

"It's like a big extended family in many ways," Shaffer added.

One of Joseph's favorite memories was when Deborah and fellow choir member and friend Sue Lathum were at the end of their second and first pregnancies, respectively. "They stepped down to process out, each placing her hand in the small of her back for support, with their very pregnant bellies protruding from beneath their robes to the hymn," he recalled, "The hymn just happened to be 'Come Labor On.' The congregation loved it."

Shaffer's favorite service is Christmas Eve.

"The midnight service is one I just really enjoy," he said.

Psalm Sunday is a favorite Joseph. The choir and members of the congregation meet in the Newton square with palm fronds in hand and process — with a police escort to block the traffic — up to the church.

"The expressions on passersby' faces are priceless," he said. "There are some of bafflement and then others of initial confusion as to what's going on to the sudden realization that they forgot it was Palm Sunday."

Deborah's favorite service is the Easter Vigil where bells ring in the morning and men in the choir sing.

Over the years, these three musicians have brought the joy of music to Christ Church and to the community and they plan on remaining there for a long time.