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For the first time, soaring voices of Saint Mark's evening hymns belong to women

caption: Rebekah Gilmore leads first-ever Women's Compline Choir at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle.
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Rebekah Gilmore leads first-ever Women's Compline Choir at St. Mark's Cathedral in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

On Sunday nights at Saint Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, you’ll see people sitting and even lying down throughout the church as they listen to chanting and prayers sung by the choir.

Until now, it's been a men’s choir.

But that changed this past Sunday, when a women’s choir led the late-night service for the first time in its 63-year history.

“I’m very excited to hear these women make this music their own and to help these congregational members who come and sit on our floor – open them up to a different sound world as they worship together,” said St. Mark’s associate musician Rebekah Gilmore, who directed the choir.

The Compline (prounounced “COMP linn”) service begins at 9:30 p.m. every Sunday and lasts just 30 minutes. Hundreds of people come to listen to the choir’s unaccompanied voices sing prayers and hymns before heading out into the night.

“It’s really a contemplative time,” Gilmore said. “A safe space where people come and quietly ponder. The prayers give food for thought.”

She said the service even makes for a popular date night in Seattle.

There are women’s and mixed Compline choirs at other churches, Gilmore said. But the Saint Mark’s choir has always been a men’s ensemble, which this summer went to perform services at Salisbury and Canterbury cathedrals in England. That created a gap in the schedule, which Gilmore filled with a choir of handpicked women singers.

“For years this has been talked about and debated and now it’s really a great opportunity for us to be welcomed in as full participants,”Gilmore said.

Saint Mark’s also commissioned new music from composer and former Compline Choir member Kevin Siegfried to be included in the three services sung by the women’s choir: August 11, 18 and 25.

Gilmore said women are fully integrated into the music and worship at Saint Mark’s, and she doesn’t begrudge the men’s choir its tradition.

“We have many decades – generations worth of women who have wanted to sing Compline here at Saint Mark’s,” she said, “but there’s also something really beautiful about the timbre of a men’s choir and we don’t fault the men for wanting to sing together and have that special kind of community.”

But she said singing every Sunday is a big commitment for the men, so there may be more opportunities for the women’s choir to lead worship in the future.

“I will say, for myself and I know many others feel this way, we too have wanted to participate in what is a very special offering at Saint Mark’s," she said.

The service is carried live by KING-FM every Sunday and is also available as a podcast.

The Compline Choir at Saint Mark’s was founded by Peter Hallock, who was the first American member of the choir of Canterbury Cathedral from 1949 to 1951.

“During this period, he and his fellow students chanted Compline regularly in the cathedral’s crypt,” according to press materials. “In Seattle, a few years later, Hallock invited 12 music students from the University of Washington to gather at Saint Mark’s to study and sing plainsong. By late 1956, this group had become the Compline Choir.”

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