John J. Binsfeld III, 76, the resident organist and choirmaster at Christ Church Philadelphia for 45 years, died Wednesday, Sept. 23, of complications from leukemia at his retirement home in Ocean City, N.J.
Born in Pottstown, Mr. Binsfeld was emancipated from his parents at age 12 into the care of the Rev. John B. Frantz and his wife, Ruth. He was raised along with the couple’s two other sons at their home in Pottstown.
Mr. Binsfeld was a precocious music student even as a young child. Once his talent at the keyboard became evident, the Frantzes encouraged him to study with local teachers Lotta Young and Barbara Hartenbauer.
While still a student at Pottstown High School, he became the minister of music at Trinity Reformed Church, where John Frantz was pastor. Mr. Binsfeld played the organ and directed the musical program from April 1961 to June 1964.
At age 17, he won a full scholarship to study with Alexander McCurdy, head of the organ department at the Curtis Institute of Music.
In 1964, while still at Curtis, Mr. Binsfeld was chosen by church leaders to become the organist and choirmaster at the historic Christ Church in Old City. He remained there until retiring in 2009.
During those 45 years, he built a ministry of music that was known not only throughout the Philadelphia area, but as far away as Maine, Florida, and California.
“That was because he had colleagues and students who went far and wide, so the word was spread,” said Mary Lou Falcone, a longtime friend and music colleague. “He influenced a generation of young organ students and also a generation of singers.”
Cherry Rhodes, an organist and university teacher who knew Mr. Binsfeld from their early days at Curtis, lost touch with him after graduating. They became friendly again later in their careers.
“It was as if we’d never been away,” she said from her home in California. “He had such a big heart. He made everybody feel so special. He was such a loyal friend and very, very thoughtful.”
Falcone said Sunday worship services at Christ Church were extraordinary. “He was the embodiment of living faith through music,” she said.
He fostered many musical events at Christ Church, including a summer organ series that provided an outlet for nationally known organists and emerging musicians.
He established a recital series bringing organists from abroad to Philadelphia audiences at the church, and a first Friday recital series. He also encouraged many established musical groups to curate their own recitals at the church.
Mr. Binsfeld’s work in the concert world, as well as his appearances on the lecture circuit, helped put Christ Church on the musical map. “He was a very modest person, so the parishioners never realized his influence outside the church,” Falcone said.
Mr. Binsfeld mentored a generation of private organ students and singers. He was also a member of the organ faculty at Temple University and at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood.
He served on the committee for the International Congress of Organists and was a member of the American Guild of Organists.
From the 1970s through 2010, Mr. Binsfeld was a staff recitalist, playing the majestic organ at John Wanamaker, now Macy’s, in Center City. He could be heard once a week at lunchtime or 5 p.m. Even after being diagnosed with leukemia, he continued to play the organ.
In retirement, Mr. Binsfeld lived in Ocean City, where he often served as a guest organist on Sundays at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church.
He was a lively, charismatic figure. “He was the life of the party," Falcone said. "Every Christmas in the 1960s, he would organize a carol sing. It was a wonderful highlight of the season.”
Mr. Binsfeld is survived by two brothers; a sister; a niece; and two nephews.