BRATTLEBORO — For nearly 32 years, Susan Dedell has pumped the organ, plied the piano keys, and shaped the choirs — and musical landscape — of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. And now she’s moving on, after a rousing, big-hearted sendoff.
The St. Michael’s community was joined Jan. 14 by many from the region and beyond to celebrate more than three decades of Dedell’s music directorship at the 170-year-old church on Bradley Avenue.
Among familiar faces from a rich past were the Rev. Jean Jersey, who had been interim pastor at St. Michael’s before the tenure of Rt. Rev. Thomas Brown, now bishop of the Diocese of Maine, who was also present with his husband, the Rev. Thomas Mousin.
Beginning with an hour of Taizé-style chanting in the Sanctuary, the gathering then moved to the ground level of the adjacent Bradley Wing, where photographer/parishioner Christine Triebert had led a team to transform a space better known for housing coffee hours and tag sales, community meetings, and events into one well-suited to Dedell’s farewell dinner: decked with fairy lights and lovely place settings, warm hues, and an intimate air. Every 5 feet or so on each long table sat a cube of tissues. And they were needed.
Following a dinner buffet and desserts prepared and served by volunteers, the evening then turned to tributes emceed by St. Michael’s priest associate, the Rev. Philip Wilson.
Often warm and poignant, sometimes more in roasting style, more than a dozen individuals and groups gave tributes to Dedell, inspiring laughter, tears, and memories.
Universally, Dedell was praised and thanked for her innovative spirit. Never one to stick with chart toppers from the standard Episcopal hymnal, she had each pew stocked with copies of Lift Every Voice and Sing: An African American Hymnal; she introduced early music, shape note singing, ancient chant, and more.
In his remarks, Brown spoke first of the wholesome character of St. Michael’s and of Dedell’s indelible mark on that.
“Susan,” he said, “something you taught me early on is that there is always more” than what the 1982 Hymnal has to offer, and that there is always more beyond the traditional.
“I have carried that with me ever since,” he told her. “You were having us sing spirituals long before George Floyd’s assassination; you had us singing shape note. [...] We were, at one time, the only church I know of that introduced and integrated styles of music and texts for singing that were not typical — and we are the stronger and the more faithful because of it.”
“There’s always more,” Brown said.
Among myriad words of praise and thanks, perhaps the most poignant were those of younger choristers and youth choir alumni. They thanked Dedell repeatedly “for the growth she nurtured, for her teaching, for wise counsel that would nudge youth out of their comfort zones to try something new.“
“The impact of Susan Dedell’s ministry on St. Michael’s and our wider community is inestimable,” said the Rev. Mary Lindquist, the church’s rector. “Her passion, intelligence, creativity, and drive helped St. Michael’s create so many opportunities for people to enter into the awe and love of God’s presence.”
“We are deeply grateful for her ministry and how God’s grace shined through it all,” Lindquist continued. “We trust that God will lead and guide us in this next chapter of our musical leadership.”
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Since Dedell first interviewed at St. Michael’s with then-Rector Paul Thompson, she has been initiating new programming and collaborations with guest musicians, poets, and visual artists.
Among these works: Paul Winter’s Missa Gaia/Earth Mass on the Feast of St. Francis; presentations of yearly performance art co-designed with Dedell’s musical colleague, Charles Mays Jr., during Black History Month; and, last spring, a Holy Week exploration of new ways of perceiving the Stations of the Cross, using sculpture of Susan Wilson inspired by experiences of migrants at the Mexican border wall.
In addition, she and husband Paul Dedell, co-founded and grew Winged Productions — an entity separate from the church but clearly an asset to it. Through that avenue, Dedell and collaborators expanded St. Michael’s offerings weaving in music, drama, art, and multimedia with original works, all aimed at exploring matters of the human/divine spirit connection but with broad secular appeal.
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Dedell reveals her passion for using the arts to reach out and expand a music ministry. For most churches, she observes, the standard hymnody does not go far enough in its outreach.
“In general, churches today are experiencing more people coming from different backgrounds and traditions,” she said, and the liturgy and music can create an opportunity to celebrate and reflect that diversity.
“I’m kind of a musical omnivore, and St. Michael’s has been open to that,” Dedell said. “It wasn’t a hard sell, and I credit that to the openmindedness of staff, choirs, and clergy over the years. I’m also a musical opportunist, so when I’m fortunate to have someone come with new insights and gifts, I have been excited!”
Seeking both earthiness and holiness, Dedell is quick to add that she still loves a lot of traditional Anglican music, not to mention the enormously rich canon of classical composers of both choral and instrumental music.
However, in the end, no matter what the style or the era that art springs from, “my goal has been to uplift, inspire, reflect, probe,” she said. “And sometimes — occasionally — even to disturb.”
“Music is not a decorative art: it is an essential one that goes where language simply cannot,” she explains.
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Reflecting back on a fruitful career, Dedell assesses reasons to be happy — and proud.
“The congregation as a whole participates in singing enthusiastically. There’s nothing better than to play for people singing their hearts out.”
In recent years, too, she adds that working with Lindquist and even more recently with newly ordained Rev. Adwoa Wilson, the church’s assistant priest, she finds great gratification in designing liturgy that is “fun, beautiful, and meaningful.”
She also counts among her rewards that the adult choir is “a thriving body — consistently healthy, happy, and willing,” and that she’s also been able to experiment with new forms of music and with music integrated into new forms of art.
The latest example of one such new form is Winged Production’s Michael, which featured wild dragon puppets designed by husband Paul Dedell and Finn Campman and created by St. Michael’s parishioners.
“There’s something about St. Michael’s that allows this ability to learn, grow, evolve — to be in the moment and be what it needs to be,” she adds. “It’s something inexplicable: there’s no place like it. There’s something in that space that is loving and openhearted.”
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What’s next for St. Michael’s?
“I opted not to be on the search committee” for the next music director, Dedell said. “I don’t want them to be encumbered by my strong views and vision, and I have complete confidence in [those on the committee] to do a thoughtful search.”
“Any successful program needs a leader who has their own vision and not a copy of someone else’s,” she noted. “Charismatic leadership is vital, and that has to be supported by the organization. I know St. Michael’s will open their hearts and throw support behind the next music director.”
And for the Dedells? To be determined.
No matter what, though, through their music, Susan and Paul Dedell will continue, as the legendary music director says, “to play in the fields of the Lord.”