News Feature

Deer Isle
Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, October 3, 2019 and The Weekly Packet, October 3, 2019
Gerald Wheeler, longtime church organist, choir director, retires
From Saint Paul’s Cathedral to Blue Hill’s ‘Congo’

At the piano

Gerald Wheeler plays one of the two grand pianos in his home. One belongs to his wife, Jean, who Wheeler said will not play in front of him.

Photo by Anne Berleant Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Anne Berleant

The nonagenarian with the twinkly eyes pressed the pipe organ pedals for the last time as First Congregational Church organist and choir director on Sunday, September 29.

“I’m 90, after all,” he said. “It’s time.”

Wheeler’s retirement after 12 years at the “Congo” was celebrated during and after the service in Blue Hill, with local musical luminaries Paul Sullivan and Noel Stookey and former church choristers. It also marked the end of nearly six decades in the church music business.

“My father wanted me to be a bank clerk,” Wheeler said. “I said, ‘No. I want to be an organist.’”

But that wasn’t always the case. A choirboy at age 15, Wheeler’s church minister asked if Wheeler played the organ. “I said, ‘no.’ He said, ‘you do now.’”

Then came World War II. Wheeler was evacuated from Kingston-on-Thames to Leeds for the duration and, upon his return, enrolled at the Royal College of Music in London, mainly to study piano. However, after graduation, he was offered a job as third organist at the famous Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, starting a career that spanned over five decades.

The position also granted Wheeler his first brush with North America, when the cathedral’s choir toured the continent for six weeks.

“It was baptism by fire,” Wheeler chuckled.

North America, specifically Canada, ended up being Wheeler’s home for 41 years when he took a position at an Ottawa church in 1965.

”I was not going anywhere [at St. Paul’s], and the [top] organist said, ‘Here’s this job, you should take it.’”

After 10 years in Ottawa, Wheeler moved to Montreal to be organist and choir director at Christ Church Cathedral, stepping down in 1996 and moving full-time to Deer Isle, to run The Inn at Ferry Landing with his wife, Jean. He also assumed the position of music director at St. Francis By the Sea Episcopal Church in Blue Hill, “retiring” in 1996.

But one week into his planned retirement—at a more traditional retirement age—the organist at the “Congo” resigned, and Wheeler was asked to fill in.

“That was 12 years ago and I’m still here—until Sunday,” he said.

Trained as a pianist at the Royal College of Music in London, Wheeler said his career as a church organist was a practical move: “I had to put bread on the table.” He also plays and performs on the harpsichord: “Have harpsichord, will travel,” he laughed.

His retirement at age 90 doesn’t mean Wheeler is closing the lid on performing. He plans to play for the church’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah this holiday season and will fill in as organist in area churches as needed.

“My fingers will get itchy,” he said, adding with a quick smile, “I like my work.”

This story was updated October 8 to add Gerald Wheeler’s 10-year tenure as music director at St. Francis By the Sea.