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How Many Easters Remain for This Century-Old Boys’ Choir School?

At the St. Thomas Choir School in Manhattan the other morning, more than two dozen boys, dressed in matching white polo shirts and gray pants, gathered in a gymnasium to rehearse hymns for Holy Week services, as their predecessors have for more than a century.

When Jeremy Filsell, the church’s organist and director of music, asked the boys for more precision when they sang the line about “the voice of an angel calling out” from “Sive Vigilem” by the Renaissance composer William Mundy, the boys tried again, their high, clear voices ringing out in Latin.

“Lovely!” he said. “That’s it!”

For 105 years, the St. Thomas Choir School has been something of an anomaly: a residential school that steeps boys in centuries-old choral traditions that are more generally associated with the great English cathedral towns than they are with Midtown Manhattan. The boys, between the ages of 8 and 14, live at the school and sing five services a week at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue.

Now St. Thomas, an Episcopal church that is venerated for its music program, is considering closing the choir school, one of only a few remaining boarding schools for young choristers in the world. The church said that its endowment, annual fund-raising and tuition fees were no longer sufficient to cover the roughly $4 million a year it costs to operate the school — which accounts for about 29 percent of the church’s $14 million budget.

The church will decide by October whether it will keep the school open beyond June 2025.

The Rev. Canon Carl F. Turner, the church’s rector, said that St. Thomas had run into trouble in part because of the misperception that it had ample resources, which has hurt fund-raising. The church, built from limestone in the French High Gothic style, stands 95 feet tall in the shadow of skyscrapers along Fifth Avenue, in one of New York’s most elegant neighborhoods.

“A lot of people think that we must be the wealthiest church in the country,” he said. “But it costs a lot of money to maintain this tradition. And now the money’s running out.”

The troubles facing the school, which St. Thomas detailed in a letter to parishioners this month, has added a somber note to Holy Week, which in the Christian faith commemorates the last days of Christ’s life, between Palm Sunday and his resurrection on Easter.

In the letter, the church’s leaders said they hoped to galvanize the community in support of the church. The church’s $138 million endowment is not enough to continue to support the school, the letter said, adding that “putting it simply, the money is running out.” (Restrictions on the endowment mean that only a dwindling portion of it can be used to cover the choir school’s costs.)

“For us to continue offering the liturgical and musical life for which we have become so well known, and making our finances sustainable in the long-term,” the letter said, “the current residential boarding school model will need to change.”

Some graduates of the school have expressed concern about the possibility that it will close, saying the church should find other cuts instead.

Ian Fisher, a 1995 graduate, said the residential model was essential to ensuring the quality of the St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, the church’s flagship ensemble.

“The choir of men and boys — at a world-class level — is an irreplaceable treasure,” he said, “and by far the most unique offering St. Thomas has to give to God and the world.”

St. Thomas’s leaders say that even if they close the school, they are committed to preserving a boys’ choir and maintaining the rigor of the church’s music program. But they acknowledge that shutting the school could hurt the sound for which the choir has long been known.

“If we lose the school, it’s gone forever,” Filsell said. “But if we preserve it, it’s something we can build.”

Many choral traditions find themselves under pressure in the 21st century. The Vienna Boys Choir has struggled to keep up with rising costs; the Austrian government helped bail out the ensemble last year with a $884,000 grant. The Westminster Choir College, a conservatory that is part of Rider University, left its longtime campus in Princeton, N.J., in 2020 because of budget pressures; Rider has tried to sell the Princeton campus but has faced legal obstacles.

The St. Thomas Choir School, which opened in 1919, was modeled on choral boarding schools in Europe. Only a few remain, including the Westminster Abbey Choir School in England and the Escolania de Montserrat in Spain.

St. Thomas Choir School, with 28 students and 15 faculty and staff members, has faced financial woes for decades, balancing its budget with the help of donations and bequests and by dipping into investment funds. Tuition, at $20,570 per year, is heavily subsidized, and many students receive scholarships.

The cost of labor, food service and maintaining the choir school’s building, just south of Central Park, has risen faster than the rate of inflation, the church said. To cut costs, the church has reduced its budget by about $800,000, canceled a planned choir tour of Britain and delayed nearly $4 million in capital projects.

Since the pandemic, fund-raising has proved challenging, and the church’s reserves have dwindled. The church estimated that it would need an additional $50 million in endowed funds or an extra $2.5 million in yearly revenue to continue running the school. It said that the annual church pledge campaign and other philanthropic support brought in $4.3 million in 2022.

The residential model has been critical to the success of the choir, but the leaders at St. Thomas said it may no longer be practical given the financial constraints.

“These are ancient traditions which are disappearing and have disappeared in so many places,” Father Turner said. “It’s here, alive and well, in New York of all places. But it may not be in the future. And I think people need to know that this is more than an icon culturally, this is something which is deeply enmeshed in history, tradition, transforming lives and touching people’s lives.”

Filsell said the residential model was “critical for the standard that we aspire to produce.”

The choristers come from across the country, and many would be unable to attend if they did not have a place to live. And because their housing is close to the church, they are able to attend intensive rehearsals and master ambitious repertoire relatively quickly, learning Handel’s “Messiah,” for which the church is well known, in about a week.

As parishioners gather to observe Holy Week, the church has drawn on teachings from Christianity to help grapple with the uncertainty.

Father Turner said that some at the church would inevitably worry about the future of the boys’ choir on Good Friday, when the students sing some of the most solemn chants in the repertoire to mark the crucifixion of Jesus.

But on Easter Sunday, he said, when they celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, the choir will sing some of the most joyful music.

“We’re not frightened to go through difficult times,” he said. “We believe that things can be made new.”

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