By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
When St. Mary Church in Muscatine closed this past summer, members of Ss. Mary & Mathias Parish faced a conundrum: what to do with the pipe organ. More than a sentimental item, the Organ Historic Society considers the 1877 Pfeiffer organ to be one of the oldest working organs in the Midwest. Clergy and parishioners struggled to find a buyer.
“There are many old organs and not that many churches seeking existing instruments,” said Mark Miller, vice president of Bedient Pipe Organ Company in Lincoln, Neb.
As the closing of the church approached, parish leaders had received interest but no concrete bids, said Tom Hickey, Ss. Mary & Mathias parish council president. The parish considered storing it, or donating it to an organ museum, but the hope was to find a church that would use the instrument.
When St. Patrick Parish in Lincoln, Neb., expressed interest in buying, fixing and installing the old organ in its new church, Ss. Mary & Mathias breathed a collective sigh of relief. “It was one of the key symbols of the church that (we) wanted to preserve going forward,” Hickey said.
St. Patrick Parish purchased the organ for $1,000, and intends to place it in the new church building, which is currently under construction. The organ’s selling price was far under its value, but Hickey said the parish accepted the bid because of the considerable cost to St. Patrick of dismantling, moving, repairing and installing the organ. “The St. Mary parishioners felt it was a good solution, especially that a Catholic church would continue using it.” He added that, while some interested parishes turned away from purchasing the organ due to its specific dimensions, St. Patrick Parish had the flexibility of working with its architect to ensure that the building could be designed to hold the organ.
In August, Bedient Pipe Organ Company spent four days in Muscatine removing the organ and preparing it for shipment to the company’s headquarters, where the organ will be refurbished. In order to remove the organ, parts of the banister and several pews were removed. Kevin Foley, Ss. Mary & Mathias’ bid coordinator, described the process as tricky, meticulous, and sometimes heavy work.
“The Bedient team removed the casework and placed each of the roughly 1,000 pipes in pine boxes for shipment. The 8-foot by 8-foot, 400-plus-pound wind chest (which resembles a bellows, responsible for maintaining and regulating air pressure and delivery to the pipes) was carefully maneuvered to the edge of the choir loft balcony and lowered to ground level via scissor-lifts,” Foley said.
Despite the labor and cost involved with moving and restoring an old organ — Muscatine parishioners estimated removal alone at $25,000 — Miller of the organ company said St. Patrick is making a good investment, and other parishes building new churches shouldn’t be afraid to do the same. “Although acquiring, moving, installing and renewing a vintage pipe organ is costly, it generally is less than a new instrument.”
The Associated Pipe Organ Builders of America estimate the cost and installation of a new pipe organ for a small-to-medium-sized church to be in the $200,000 to $850,000 range.
The organ is being stored at Bedient’s facility near Lincoln. St. Patrick’s is raising the necessary funds to repair and install the organ in the new church, expected to be completed mid-summer 2015. Once the renovated organ is installed, former parishioners of St. Mary will be invited to visit the new St. Patrick’s church and enjoy the treasured instrument.
Miller said it will be one of the oldest mechanical action pipe organs in the area in what is planned to be an “outstanding acoustic space.”
Bedient president Paul Lytle, who is supervising the project, called the organ “a gem worth preserving,” adding that the process of breathing new life into the organ “demonstrates good stewardship for all involved.” With good care, he said, the organ should continue to play for at least another 100 years.