Thomas Fitches, the immensely talented and faithful organist and choirmaster at St. Clement, Eglinton for more than four decades, is apparently retiring in April – “apparently” because no one wanted him to retire, but “apparently” he won’t change his mind. Mr. Fitches has defined music at the church for several generations of choir members and parishioners with a unique and special ministry that sometimes has been the principle glue holding the parish together, especially during periods of transitions.
Right now at St. Clement’s, we are going through a whole series of events to celebrate the musical ministry of Mr. Fitches, but our purposes in this article are simply to celebrate the shy, intensely loyal and gifted man who kept the best in the Anglican tradition of choral music alive in one very lucky church. Not just a musician, Mr. Fitches was a crucial key to the spiritual and pastoral life of the church.
St. Clement’s is currently going through a solid revival, with growing numbers of new and younger members, and no small part of the appeal – along, of course, with an energetic and young new rector – has been the evolving constancy of Mr. Fitches’ musical ministry. When someone stays so long at one place, some may assume he had nowhere else to go. In this case, there were many places that wanted him throughout his years. Indeed, the degree of respect he is held in by other organists from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver B.C. is remarkable.
Less well known, and perhaps even more remarkable, is the esteem he is regarded throughout much of southwest France, where he has a familiarity with many of the extraordinary collection of ancient organs strewn about parishes and cathedrals there. He not only has a special gift for French organ music, he also knows organs from the inside out – the old and new instruments, the small and the lofty. He knows the moods of all the pipes, the eccentricities of tracker action and the stodgy dignity of pneumatic action. One of the gifts he gave St. Clement’s was his own practical and highly economical ability to keep its organ in good repair. It was also a gift some very famous French organists cherished highly. Significantly, his French experiences inspired him to create a fine French instrument from an organ in North Toronto of no special note.
As a choir conductor at St. Clement’s, Mr. Fitches took on the responsibility of caring not just for the quality of sound, but also for the quality of the experience of singing in a fine parish choir. He became involved in the lives of his singers, old and young. Under his tutelage, choristers understood their duty in enhancing worship. Few churches so regularly and willingly provide full participation in funerals where his exceptional skills as a liturgist came to the fore. He became family for many choristers and godfather to numerous future choristers whose parents sang in the choir for decades. And the sounds he got were very good. No, it was not King’s College, Cambridge, but it was as consistently good as any parish church choir in Toronto, for 40-plus years.
He was also, by wide agreement, the best hymn accompanist anyone knew. It is an undervalued talent, we suppose, but when you are singing and Mr. Fitches is playing, he can catch you on the upturn of his swell pedal and get amazing things out of the vocal chords of even the stuffiest Anglican retired stockbroker. His improvisations are something to anticipate eagerly. At a wedding, accompanying a sweet carol that celebrates the “gift to find someone to know and love” (Carol of Beauty), there’s hardly a dry eye in the pews. At a solemn and sad funeral, the way Mr. Fitches pushes the bereaved in “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…” actually helps those left behind to understand the metaphysical truths behind “the means of grace and the hope of glory.”
At St. Clement’s, we will be giving thanks for the service, loyalty and immense talent of Thomas Fitches. All of his friends are invited to a service of celebration on his last Sunday at St. Clement’s, April 26, at 10 a.m., followed by a party in the church hall.
Submitted by John Fraser and Elizabeth MacCallum