Anne Schmitt’s fingers move deftly over the stacked keyboards. Though her motions are sure, the notes that emanate from the organ’s pipes make her keystrokes sound clumsy and garbled. She releases a key, but the sound continues until she adjusts the stops, cutting off the flow of air to the pipes entirely.
It might be that the recent bitter cold has seeped into the instrument’s 92-year-old bones, but more likely it needs to be completely restored — no small undertaking for this particular organ, which has remained nearly unchanged since it was installed in St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in 1929.
“Our church is a historic building in a historic town. This is a historic organ that’s a big part of the church, so it’s important to preserve that,” said Schmitt, who is the music director for St. Anthony’s. “To restore it in its simplicity and its beauty, I believe would be the most reverent and respectful thing to do.
St. Anthony’s purchased the organ from the Casavant Freres Company in Quebec, which furnished churches and concert halls across the world with their innovative organs. This one was bought “off the rack,” according to Schmitt, and it doesn’t conform to the choir loft the way a custom organ would. It’s essentially a box with pipes lining the front and oak paneling on the sides.
Its simple exterior conceals a complex interior. The apparatus that sends the signal from the keyboard to the pipes to make a sound is called a “tubular pneumatic” system. In this design, lead tubes connect the console to the valves to produce sound instead of electric signals or mechanical levers. It was a design popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Tubular pneumatics last about 100 years between major restorations — double the lifespan of the best electric organs.
“That’s what’s different from the ones that came before it and the ones that came after it,” Schmitt said. “It makes it a little more complex because a lot of organ builders don’t know how to work on tubular pneumatic organs.”
“When you actually see it, it just looks like a rat’s nest of a tube for every key,” said John Ourensma, the director of music at Hillsdale’s First United Methodist. He previously worked for an organ making company, and does freelance organ tuning and repair. He helped clean and restore some of the pipes in St. Anthony’s organ.
The problem is that the interface between the keys, air-pressure system, and pipes involves 90-year-old leather parts that are starting to fail and are negatively affected by changes in temperature and humidity. As a result, the pipes keep producing sound after the organist has stopped pressing them.
‘It’s very disconcerting if you’re the organist,” Schmitt said.
Junior Clare Kearns plays the organ during most Sunday morning masses at St. Anthony’s, and has experienced the problem.
“It’s definitely gotten a lot worse since it got really cold and dry, but mainly the keys have just been sticking a lot,” she said. “I’ll be playing and just some of the notes will keep sounding way after I released them, and so it just sounds like I’m playing all the notes at once.”
If the problem doesn’t abate with the return of warmer weather, then it’s likely the entire tube system will have to be replaced in a months-long restoration process. Schmitt is working with J.L. Weiler, Inc., an organ repair company in Chicago to perform the restoration.
“They call it historically informed restoration,” Schmitt said. “It’s not like they necessarily only use materials that they had in 1929, but they do their best to restore it to the way it was back then.”
According to Ourensma, the organ is in nearly pristine condition, which makes it unique among organs from its era.
“We think it is special because nothing’s been done to it, and it basically looks and sounds exactly like it did in 1929,” Ourensma said. “A lot of times churches get impatient with organs, and organists want new fads and new trends. And so they add on, or they throw it away and build something new, or really alter it in some way. But St. Anthony’s is a quiet, conservative, easy-going parish. Call it luck or providence, but they never messed with it. So it’s really a simple little workhorse of an instrument.”
Hillsdale’s community has fancier organs, but St. Anthony’s uniqueness comes from its simplicity. It isn’t meant to be its own show or to perform complex musical works.
“It was designed basically to accompany chant in the Latin service, but with a little bit of work on the part of the organist, it can make enough sounds that you can play some other kinds of music for more of the singing that the whole congregation does now in the Catholic Church,” Ourensma said.
In Schmitt’s view, the organ is worth restoring to its original condition despite the time and cost it will demand. For one, doing so will ensure the use of organ music in St. Anthony’s for another hundred years. It will ultimately be more economical, as a new electric organ would still cost over half what the renovation would, and only last for half the time.
Though St. Anthony’s also has a piano, which can be used when the organ is acting up, it doesn’t invoke the same reverence as the organ. The sound of the organ echoes across 1,200 years of Christian history, having first been introduced to the Western rite when Emperor Charlemagne requested one for his chapel in the year 812. For centuries, it was the only instrument allowed to accompany the mass aside from the human voice.
The Second Vatican Council wrote in the document “Sacrosanctum Concilium” in 1963 that the organ should “be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.”
Schmitt said that the organ is necessary to maintain this sense of tradition in liturgical music.
“I’ve seen a real revival in people’s love of traditional music,” she said. “I see it in this parish in the way they sing the Latin mass parts and the hymns so well. The reason we’re here, the reason we are actually created on this earth, is to worship God. So it’s very important to me that our worship is always reverent and beautiful. And so for me it’s important to maintain the tradition of the organ.”
In addition to continuing the musical tradition of the Western Church, the organ connects the past and future parishioners of St. Anthony’s in particular.
“The use of the organ in our day has been quite diminished,” Ourensma said. “We now have praise bands and other instruments and that’s all fine, but then there are churches like St. Anthony’s that have basically been using an organ since the day the church opened.”
There isn’t yet a set plan for how and when the restoration will be carried out, but it needs to happen sooner rather than later. Schmitt is confident that the community will see that what needs to happen, will happen
“I’m confident that with the generosity of our parish, we will be able to historically restore the organ. If we do that, it’ll be good for another 100 years. We’ll all be gone, but what a gift to leave to this community.”