Most people might not take kindly to being known as "the walking hymn garbage brain." But not only does James Sucha not take offense, he considers the label a compliment.

Name a hymn, and the native of Austin, Minn., can tell you everything you'd ever want to know about it -- and more. The name of composer and the date it was written? Child's play! He'll give you the composer's entire life story, including the situations that led to or are reflected in the music.

If that's not enough, he can recite all the other hymns that person wrote. Before you request this, keep in mind that some composers have written more than 100.

"I like to tell the stories behind the hymns and liturgy," he said. "Without a story, we don't have a setting" for the lessons they teach.

Sucha visits churches to teach a class he calls Hymnody 101, and he has published his own hymnal, "The Service Hymnal: A Lutheran Homecoming" ($14.95, www.voice oftherockies.com or 303-443-6507). Each hymn in it is accompanied by the composer's bio and picture.

He intended the book to be used as a devotional hymnal at home, "but now it's turning up in some churches," he said. "We've also had requests for it from servicemen in Iraq, which is very touching."

Sucha, 46, didn't become interested in hymns until he was 28. He was going to grad school in Wisconsin (where he lives now) when he injured his back in a bus accident.

"The pastor of my church pushed me to learn to play the organ as physical therapy because it involves using your hands and feet," he said. "So I took organ lessons and learned how to play some of the hymns. In addition to the therapy, I found solace in the music. It took the pain away."

An avid researcher, he started looking into the stories behind the music. He found solace there, too. Most of the composers -- he estimates 90 percent -- experienced some sort of misery that led them to express their faith in music.

"Many of them went through a living hell to write their music, and I was in a place where I could relate to that," he said.

When his back healed, he moved to Denver to work as a law office administrator. He met a religious music publisher who convinced him that his "walking hymn garbage brain" could be used for more than amusing his friends.

No conversation with Sucha is complete without asking if he has a favorite hymn.

"Many of them," he said. "If I had to pick one, it would be 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.' You don't hear it much anymore because the Lutherans wore it out in the 1960s. For a while, it was their theme song."

A birthday face-lift

St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral is getting spiffed up for its 100th birthday in September.

If you've gone past the church on the edge of downtown Minneapolis, you probably have noticed the scaffolding encasing it. But that's only the most visible part of an extensive makeover that is addressing everything from worn spots in the roof to potholes in the parking lot.

Among the bigger parts of the makeover, all 5,000 pipes in the organ are being refurbished, and the carriage entrance off Hennepin Avenue S. is being rebuilt -- which is particularly appropriate because the three-year capital campaign to raise the money for all of this was titled "Opening Our Doors."

The campaign raised $2.8 million, but the congregation isn't stopping there.

"Other things are still in development," said Mary Beth Helfrich, executive assistant to Dean Spenser Simrill. Many of those have to do with environmental issues, including a stormwater-filtering drainage system for the parking lot and adding more green space outside. Most of these additional things won't even be started by the 100th anniversary, but that's fine.

"It's becoming an ongoing project," she said. "We want to ensure that the cathedral will still be here for its 200th anniversary."

Up in smoke

Churches continue to feel the pinch of the recession in their offering plates, and the ripple effect has reached an unusual target: candlemakers.

Churches looking to trim expenses have cut back on the number of candles they use, either by lighting fewer of them or limiting how long they're burned. As a result, Emkay Candle, a company in Syracuse, N.Y., that has been supplying candles to churches for 85 years, announced that it is laying off all but 10 of its 46 employees.

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392