By Lindsay Steele
DAVENPORT — For more than 90 years, the pipe organ of St. Mary’s Church had the choir loft all to itself.
Now, the organ once declared the “Pride of St. Mary’s” shares its space with a piano, guitars, flutes, and even a karaoke machine. It often fades into the background, said organist Tony Fuhs, “because so much of our music is produced by these other instruments, and the organ is silent so much of the time.”
When it is played, however, he said the congregation is reminded of why the pipe organ was the star of Catholic worship for so many years, and why it is still relevant. It still delivers a rich sound, and continues to delight parishioners 130 years after its first notes were played.
Deacon George Strader, who often sings with the St. Mary’s choir, said that singing along with the organ is a beautiful experience.
“We feel like we’re singing along with the people of the past and the worshipers of the past when we’re sharing in the music with the organist,” he said.
The antique organ, which has been recognized by the Organ Historical Society and is believed to be one of the oldest working organs west of the Mississippi River, “was built specifically for the church (in 1883),” said choir director Becky Pracht.
The design for the church, drawn out by mission pastor Father J.A.M. Pelamourgues, included a loft space intended to receive “an instrument of large size and remarkable power.”
St. Mary’s used the organ exclusively in worship until the 1970s. Now, the organists alternate accompanying duties with the contemporary choir. Fuhs said he believes that even as church music becomes more diverse, there will still be a place for organs like the one at St. Mary’s.
“To me it’s important that we keep going back to the organ as the primary instrument,” he said. “The organ is like the voice. When you are talking about a congregation (whose members are not trained singers), we are giving them something that is leading, clearly showing them what to sing. I like that aspect of it.”
For the organists, the instrument’s age makes playing it a special experience.
“It’s really neat,” said organist Jean Kavanaugh, who has played the organ’s keys for 40 years. “It’s a pretty instrument too.” Kavanaugh, along with Fuhs and Mary Anne Chouteau, are the latest in a long line of organists who have played for the church.
Likewise, the organists are impressed with how well the organ has withstood its age. Regular maintenance work is performed by Levsen Organ Company of Buffalo, Iowa, which Deacon Strader says is one of only a few companies qualified to handle such an old organ.
Kavanaugh said the only flaws in the instrument are a faulty trumpet valve and a tremolo that makes the organ shake. These flaws pale in comparison to the organ’s continued ability to produce a powerful sound. “If you are pulling all the stops, it can really blast you out,” she said.
Fuhs said the future of the organ depends not just on maintenance but on making sure people are interested in playing the instrument. Interest has dwindled in recent years, but Fuhs would like to start a development program to ensure that the next generation won’t allow St. Mary’s organ to go silent.
Deacon Strader, too, hopes future generations will show interest in the old organ. “The organ is so important here, because it was so well done, and has been so well maintained,” he said. “There’s greater diversity in music now. That’s OK. But it is still the key (instrument) and there is no substitute for it.”