Journalism by Shueh-li
Sonicfreakz  |  15 Jan 2010

Hungary for a Covenant

Sanctuary, Covenant Presbyterian Church-PCA in Nashville TN

Sanctuary, Covenant Presbyterian Church-PCA in Nashville TN

Fresh from visiting a neo-eclectic symphony center draped with motifs inspired by an Egyptian revivalist church, I head for a Presbyterian church with an eye for the Gothic (read my previous article It’s the journey, not the destination, Mr Valentine).

“Originating in 12th-century France and lasting into the 16th century, Gothic architecture was known during the period as the French Style. Its characteristic features include the pointed arch, the ribbed vault and the flying buttress. It is in the great churches and cathedrals and in a number of civic buildings that the Gothic style was expressed most powerfully, its characteristics lending themselves to appeal to the emotions.” – wikipedia.

I have to admit that time and time again, my emotions succumb to beauty, whether presented in its popular form or distorted in translation.

During my visit to Spain a few years ago, I was entranced by the must see La Sagrada Família cathedral. Born from the mind of Antonio Gaudi, a Catalan architect who favoured the gothic style, La Sagrada Família is a breath-taking trip indeed.

It was with the same sense of entrapment that I approached the Sanctuary of the Covenant Presbyterian Church-PCA in Nashville TN to meet its music director.

The moment Brandon Herrenbruck, Tom Brislin and I enter the massive doors at the entrance, I am transported back in time. I lower my eyes at its magnificence.

What was going through my mind at that moment was, if not for the world traveler I was, it would have been surreal when a strangely musical voice with a hint of a European descent commanded the room.

I see a member of the Magyar tribe approach us but swathed in formal attire.

OK. I got carried away there, but indeed it was one such descendent of the Magyars who went by the name of Paul Magyar.

‘Magyar’ means Hungarian – pronounced ‘mod+your’. The letters ‘dy’ are joined and spoken almost like a soft ‘j’, and roll the ‘r’ Spanish style.

Paul Magyar was raised in a large family that loved to sing but he loved to dance. He must have danced in exuberance with his hands raised high in the air for it brought him all the way to America to eventually complete 3 degrees in music to include a PHD in Choral Conducting. His first love is singing. With a quick wit, the kind some would term charismatic, he tells me he is an anomaly amongst those from the evangelical protestant church of his age in America. Why? They much prefer bands to the organ, considering the organ an instrument of antiquity. Paul Magyar is obviously in love with the organ and organ music, and at the time of our meet, had already made plans to attend an organ festival in Texas.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the Sanctuary of the Covenant Church has as the Pièce de résistance of its architectural embellishment? It is a Fisk organ, which Paul (who holds a doctorate of musical arts) kindly plays a little to the delight of Tom and me. Founded in 1961, the Fisk design stays true to the mechanical “tracker” rather than the pneumatic action. They work with the client to custom-build the instrument on site. The Covenant Church is the proud owner of Opus 134 from the Fisk collection of instruments built.

Church Pew

The architecture inside




The 19 year-old Covenant Presbyterian Church-PCA has two thousand members, with a thousand worship each Sunday. When it was formed, the leadership’s desire was to build a Sanctuary that would last centuries.

Cruciform in shape, the Sanctuary has a traditional nave as part of the ceiling.

(Nave = underside of a ship which is what the rafters of the ceiling resemble. Latin = navis i.e. a ship, the same word from which we get “navy”.)

Stained glass windows, some yet to be finished, tell the story of the New and Old Testament Covenant.

As Paul Magyar relates the story of the building of the Sanctuary, it unfolds in 3D in front of me.

“The structure was to be built with stone, and to be built quickly.” The question, how to find the funds to buy the stone, to complete the building as quickly as possible, sat squarely on the shoulders of the pastor. He had a vision that was translated into the campaign “Stones of witness”. No sooner than it was professed, a man approached the church and said, “Consider it done!”

While the church was being designed, Paul Magyar’s predecessor enlisted the help of an acoustician in Chicago, who recommended significant changes to the shape of the traditional gothic shape which was that of a cruciform. The ceiling was pitched higher, the transepts brought in, the apse was removed, and the back wall made flat. A minstrels’ gallery was placed into the chancel area.

Paul Magyar interrupts my 3D dreaming with a little insight into his interview with the church for the position of music director; he has been with the church for a year and a half. A church that “espoused a traditional worship, liturgical rubric, conservative biblical teaching” was very rare and very attractive to him. Neo-gothic architecture is his favourite form for worship, one which he thought he could only dream about, let alone be its head of music.

Paul Magyar’s other mission was to use the room to reclaim the arts. “For centuries the church promoted the arts through stain glass, architecture, music. As the 20th-century ensued, the church gave it up to flirt with pop music”.

In that process, “They gave up time honoured music-making experiences for that which will come and go,” he said apologetically.

He suggested a public concert series which became the Sunday evenings at the covenant at the Sanctuary with performances that take place in the chancel area. Since then, the series has been programing sacred or classical music. Most are free, some ensembles charge admission or suggested donation.

The Sanctuary has a naturally occurring delay of about 3 seconds and is a perfect host to acoustic performances. Bellissimo!

As I get ready to bid adieu to our delightful chat, I ask Paul Magyar if he had advise for those interested in being a music director. “Get a degree or two. It will carry you all the way through your life. Talent alone will not cut it.” Wisdom from a man who has been a vocational church musician for 30 years and served 8 churches.

My eyes twinkle with fascination as I head out the Sanctuary, ready to explore more of the fabric of a culture that is an interplay of country and modernistic interpretation, old and new developments.

Read Nashville; a Prelude to a journey into the 3rd coast for a list of list of videos on my YouTube Oceanachine channel and articles about my week-long trip to uncover the diverse nature of the music scene in the music city.


Photos (c) 2009/10 Shueh-li Ong (unless specified, all articles written by Shueh-li Ong bear the photography, videography and digital work of its author.)

covenant presbyterian church • fisk organ • gothic architecture • nashville •

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