St. Martin of Tours begins restoration of historic organ

Daniel Schwandt, an organist from Chicago, Ill., worked to remove small pipes from the swell division of the organ at St. Martin of Tours Church, 639 South Shelby St., July 7. More than 700 pipes were removed and taken to Wahl Organbuilders in Appleton, Wis., where they will be restored. After six months of work, the pipes will be re-installed next January.  (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

Daniel Schwandt, an organist from Chicago, Ill., worked to remove small pipes from the swell division of the organ at St. Martin of Tours Church, 639 South Shelby St., July 7. More than 700 pipes were removed and taken to Wahl Organbuilders in Appleton, Wis., where they will be restored. After six months of work, the pipes will be re-installed next January. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
In the late 1970s when the downtown Catholic population had dwindled and St. Martin of Tours Church was on the verge of closure, its historic pipe organ proved to be the parish’s saving grace.

Close to four decades later, Father Paul Beach — pastor of the more than 160-year old church located on East Shelby Street — said the organ continues to be the heart of the parish.

Father Vernon Robertson, who was pastor of St. Martin in 1978, turned to music as a way of bringing people back to the parish, said Father Beach.

He assembled a choir, hired an organist and had the organ tuned. “He started providing high quality sacred music which was unusual to that area,” said Father Beach. It worked and “the parish experienced a renaissance.”

The music is still bringing people to the church, said Father Beach, noting the fact that parishioners travel from as far as Evansville, Ind., and Elizabethtown, Ky., to attend Mass.

In order for the organ to perform in the way it was meant to, it must undergo restoration every few generations. That time has come again.

On July 7, more than 700 pipes were removed from the historic pipe organ and carted off to Appleton, Wis., where Ronald Wahl, owner of Wahl Organbuilders, said he will clean, repair and adjust them so they sound the way they did 100 years ago.

This is phase one of a three-part restoration project. The organ was restored previously in the 1960s and 1990s.

It will take Wahl Organbuilders approximately six months to restore the hundreds of pipes. They are slated to return to St. Martin by next January, but the organ will still be operable during this time.

St. Martin of Tour’s music program is an “essential part of the life of the parish,” said Father Beach. “Music is liturgy and the liturgy is important to the people who are parishioners.” That’s the reason, Father Beach said, this “restoration touches the heart of what the parish is about.”

Eugene Lavery, who has served as the parish’s organist, since January believes the organ, built in 1894, contributes “artistic and cultural significance to the city and country.”

“Considering that the United States is a pretty new country, to have something this old and still functional is rare,” said Lavery.

Christoph Wahl one of the artisans working on the restoration project, said the organ boasts “fine craftsmanship” and a “sound quality that’s very unique.” He added that the organ was one of the earliest electric-action organs and was considered cutting-edge technology when it was built.

The parish raised $90,000 through choir concerts and the sale of compact discs for the first phase of the restoration. The church will continue its fundraising efforts in order to complete phases two and three of the restoration project.

When completed it will cost close to $400,000 and the approximately 2,100 pipes will have been restored to the near original condition the Wahls believe the original pipes were in. Father Beach believes its worth the cost.

“Sacred music has the capacity to lift the heart and mind to God,” he said noting this project will help to accomplish that.

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