By Hannah Reimann
“You ought to be written up by the Times,” suggested publisher George Capsis to Graeme Napier, the Rector of St. John’s Anglican Church on Waverly Place and West 11th Street, after he experienced one of many concerts Father Graeme produces in his church.
In the Spring of 2018, Joe Turco, an American attorney and friend of Capsis emailed him about Father Graeme, whom he had met at Oxford. Father Graeme had just arrived and was settling in at St. John’s. At their first meeting in Capsis’s garden at 69 Charles Street, the publisher of WestView News boasted about the concerts he produced at St. Veronica’s to him, who modestly concealed his long history of music in many churches and cathedrals where he was a clergyman.
Perhaps most notably, he was one of two Minor Canons at Westminster Abbey. Early on in his tenure, he had been asked by St. Paul’s Cathedral to lead prayers after the Bali bombings in 2002 because he had served as a parish priest in Australia. Many Australians had died in the bombings. The entire royal family was in attendance. After the prayers, Queen Elizabeth II came up to him and said, “You don’t sound very Australian.” He explained to her that he was born in the United Kingdom.
Father Graeme met The Queen more than a dozen times in his eight years serving at the Abbey. He said that the Duke of Edinburgh could let his hair down a bit more with the clergy while The Queen was absolutely professional with everyone nearly 100% of the time. Nonetheless, it appears that any ice that would have been broken was done so right away at that first meeting.
Working at Westminster Abbey was exciting and busy. The amount of work each day required two people to be in charge, hence, two Minor Canons were present of which Father Graeme was one. Visits by Parliament, Ministry of Defence and, of course, The Queen were routine events. Because this was not a parish position, he had time after Evensong, around 6pm, to live a more busy, urban life with colleagues and friends than he had in Scotland and Australia, walking from the Abbey to the West End. He lived in the cloister in a beautiful 17th-centry house with a big dining room and drawing room, overlooking the College Garden, the oldest garden in England. The drawing room of the house had been voted the best drawing room in England by Vogue Magazine because of its 17th-century paneling and the view of the magnificent College Garden, in cultivation for over 900 years.
The Minor Canons worked very closely with the Music Department at Westminster Abbey and he played an active role in the selection of music, commissioning works from John Taverner, John Rutter and Scottish composer, James McMillan, among others. He commissioned a poet and composer at the same time for an event, something he has reproduced at St. John’s in the Village.
His vocation as a priest came about when he was an undergraduate in Oxford, initially from knowing Jeffrey John, Dean of Divinity when he studied philosophy and mathematics at Magdalen College. He discovered what a difference Father Jeffrey’s presence and wisdom made to so many people. Daily Choral Evensong was a wonderful, immersive experience that stayed with Father Graeme, inspiring him to have a life with music and song wherever he lived. Magdalen College Chapel enjoys a rich tradition of choral music written from the sixteenth century onward, including newly commissioned works. Being at Oxford influenced him greatly in terms of experiencing the creation of art, music and the presence of notable architecture and its positive influence.
“It’s a very good fit,” he says. “I very much see the arts and beauty flourishing as part of our Christian mission.” Churches, synagogues and mosques being patrons of the arts for centuries contributed enormously to the development of culture. We’re very fortunate to have Father Graeme supporting the arts in The Village. Please join him and his large roster of talent for concerts, services, and special events at St. John’s. You will be happy that you attended.
This is the first of a two-part article about Father Graeme Napier. Please see the November 2019 issue of WestView News for its continuation.