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Saint Thomas Choir School in Danger of Closing

Manhattan’s Saint Thomas Choir School, which has trained young boys in church music for more than a century, is in danger of closing because its costs have become unmanageable for its parent organization, Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. The church’s vestry announced on March 17 that it has set up a sustainability task force to examine various options for balancing its budget and exploring different educational models that might allow it to maintain its choir of men and boys.

“The Vestry is still committed to excellence in liturgy and music. However, 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 current residential boarding school model will need to change,” the letter said.

“Putting it simply, the money is running out and the Vestry has a responsibility to take action now rather than see the general fund completely expended.”

The choir school, which has a current enrollment of 28 boys in grades 3-8, has always been a ministry of the church, where the boys sing five services each week during the school term. The church’s website says its mission is to “worship, love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ through the Anglican tradition and our unique choral heritage,” and its crest is a shield supported by two choir boys.

The choir school is housed in a 15-story building at 202 West 58th Street, which was purpose-built as a school in 1987. It contains the school’s classrooms and activity spaces, dorm rooms for students, and apartments for full-time faculty. The school’s website shows 24 faculty and staff members.

The choir school was founded in 1919, under the direction of T. Tertius Noble, a renowned organist and composer, who moved to the church from York Minster at the height of his career. Noble believed that a choir school, like the one that had trained his choristers in York, would be essential to achieving the standard of musical excellence that the parish desired.

Since then, financial sustainability concerns have made such small choir schools, which educate only choristers, extremely rare. York Minster’s choir school, the Minster School, which traced its origins to 627, closed in 2020.

The Choir Schools Association lists several dozen member schools affiliated with Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals and churches in England, Scotland, and Wales. Some of the schools date to the Middle Ages, when the education of choir boys was an integral part of monastic life across Europe. Most of them would have only educated boy choristers for part of their life, but today, the bulk of students at nearly all these schools are non-choristers.

Besides Saint Thomas, the only two other churches that are believed to operate schools only for their boy choristers are Westminster Abbey in London and the Benedictine Abbey of Montserrat near Barcelona. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin operates a school for its boy and girl choristers, but the school shares resources with a much larger grammar school also located on the cathedral grounds.

Saint Thomas Choir School charges $20,570 in tuition, but says that per-student expenditure is approximately $90,000 per year. It has a need-blind admissions policy, and during the current school year, 74 percent of students received financial aid.

As a result, tuition and other fees account for only 11 percent of the school’s $4 million operating costs, with the remainder coming from parish funds and an annual appeal. “Well over 50%” of the parish’s $14 million operating budget is spent on making music, the vestry’s letter said.

The change comes as part of a goal by the church’s vestry to limit its draw from the church’s $138 million endowment to just 5 percent per year, ending the practice of balancing its budget from invested funds and spending bequests for operations, which the vestry says has been common for the last 50 years.

Parochial report data show that plate and pledge donations provide less than 10 percent of the parish’s operating income. In 2022, it totaled only $1,125,273, down only about 8 percent from pre-pandemic highs. Since 2019, Sunday attendance at the church, similar to many across the Episcopal Church, has declined 36 percent, from 618 to 396.

The vestry says it “would need to raise at least an additional $50 million in endowed funds or an extra $2.5 million in annual revenue to continue to operate the school in its current form. This extra revenue would need to be combined with substantial budget cuts to close the operating shortfall of $3-4 million per year.”

Asked if there is an active plan to raise these funds, church warden Lloyd Stanford told TLC, “Everything is on the table. But the fact is that the vestry has been trying to raise funds for many years and has not been able to keep pace with the cost of educating the choristers.”

Stanford also said that despite the doubts about the school’s future, “Parents are continuing to renew enrollment for next term. This is not surprising, because Saint Thomas Choir School provides a quality education and wonderful experience for the students.”

“Just this week, when we shared the news with the parents of a newly accepted student, they decided to enroll their son. That’s understandable, because even one year at Saint Thomas Choir School can be a life-changing experience.” The vestry is committed to operating the school until June 2025.

The Rev. Canon Carl Turner, rector of St. Thomas, emphasized the church’s intention to preserve as much of its current liturgical and musical tradition as possible in his March 17 letter to the congregation. “We may have to make our music a little differently, but the Vestry is committed to doing so with the same level of excellence as we enjoy now.”

The repertoire will not change at the 11 a.m. Eucharist and at Choral Evensong, he added.

He said the parish hopes to maintain a choir of men and boys, and to add a separate girls choir, building on the success of the summer course it has offered for girl choristers for the last several years.

“For its first 100 years, the parish did not have a school; for its second 100 years, it has had a very small boarding school where the choristers make up the whole student body. It may very well be that, in our next 100 years, we will have a very different kind of school or no school,” Turner said. “While we lament the possibility of this loss, we must also celebrate all that our Choir School has achieved and all those children’s lives transformed, and who in turn have changed ours.”

The sustainability task force is expected to report final decisions about the choir school’s future in October.

Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue provides financial support for The Living Church through our partnership program.

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