Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

St. Augustine Parish’s pipe organ: 10 years of praying through music

by Jim Tevenan, for the Inland Register

(From the Sept. 10, 2009 edition of the Inland Register)

Organ builder Martin Pasi and an assistant pour pipe metal in Pasi’s shop in Roy, Wash. (IR photo courtesy of St. Augustine Parish, Spokane)

The pipe organ has a long and rich history in the Catholic Church, from its admission to liturgical use in the middle of the eighth century through today. While the essential nature of the organ remains unchanged – gently compressed air powering pipes of wood and metal played through a keyboard-controlled mechanism – evolving technology and musical taste have caused many variations and alterations to sound and playing mechanism through the centuries.

Today, though, there is a resurgence of interest in the classic techniques of organ building perfected in the 18th century. A unique example of this renaissance was installed 10 years ago at St. Augustine Parish, Spokane.

In all the music documents given by Rome and the U.S. Bishops’ Conference since Vatican II, the organ is described as having “pride of place” among instruments used in worship. While its status as the premier liturgical instrument remains unchanged, the expectation of how the organ functions in liturgy has undergone a major shift.

Historically, the use of the organ in the Latin Rite has centered primarily on the accompaniment of choirs and playing of solo music at different parts of the Mass, requiring a limited palette of relatively soft sound colors. With Vatican II’s emphasis on congregational singing in liturgy, many organists found themselves playing instruments unequal to their newly mandated added task: sturdily supporting the sound of enthusiastically singing congregations.

An organ was installed at St. Augustine Church in 1952, placed in such a way that its sound reached poorly into the church, unable to provide proper support for community singing. Compounding this was a serious issue with the original installation of the organ leading to key electrical parts failing well before they should have. While not a crisis, the situation did demand immediate, serious attention.

The purchase of a pipe organ is more process than event, so Father (now Msgr.) Robert Pearson, then pastor of St. Augustine, in 1990 appointed a committee of interested individuals, most connected with music and liturgy at St. Augustine, to explore the replacement of the existing organ and to recommend a builder.

One serious discussion item the organ committee faced was the cost of the organ. Parishes choosing to build a custom pipe organ make very large financial commitments. The question necessarily arises: Should we spend this much on a musical instrument when social ministries are constantly in need? The answer, after extensive discussion, stressed “both-and” over “either-or”: a leaner, but still substantial organ design emerged, along with an acknowledgement of the need for active social ministry.

The committee corresponded with organ builders throughout the country, travelled to hear the work of some, and ultimately narrowed the field to a few who were invited to Spokane, interviewed and asked to submit proposals for a new instrument.

The committee selected builder Martin Pasi of Roy, Wash. (near Tacoma). Pasi is a native of Austria, where he learned his trade in the traditional way, beginning as an apprentice at the Rieger organ company, one of Europe’s largest. There he learned the skills needed to build a fine pipe organ, ranging from architecture and design through wood- and metalworking to tuning and voicing pipes. He came to North America to install Rieger organs in both the U.S. and Canada, moved on to work with other North American builders, and started his own organ-building firm in Washington in 1990.

In 1995 a contract was signed for the fabrication and installation of St. Augustine’s new organ, an instrument of two manuals (keyboards) and pedal (keyboard for feet). Very old and quite new technologies merge in this organ: the playing mechanism (the organ “action”) is entirely mechanical, using thin wood strips called “trackers” to connect keyboards and pipes; control of “stops,” or sets of pipes, is computer-based. There are 30 stops in the organ: eight from the original instrument, rebuilt and adjusted to sound well in the new organ. The rest of the stops, well over 1,500 pipes, were made in the Pasi shop. Most of the pipes are metal, with lead the primary ingredient because of the smoothness and beauty of tone it produces.

In those days the Pasi shop was a small one, employing a total of four to five artisans, and housed in a remodeled schoolhouse. Regardless of the number of workers involved or the size of the shop, construction required a full year for an organ such as the one for St. Augustine. The original target date for completion, Easter 1999, was pushed back to July to accommodate the complex design of the “case,” or cabinetry of the organ.

While the organ was taking shape in western Washington, in Spokane another committee discussed a second key element of the organ project: the interior of the church. The community’s song was disappointing, due in no small part to the presence of a large amount of sound-absorbing ceiling material. This situation led to the oft-heard parishioner complaint that to sing in the pews felt too much like singing a solo to be comfortable. The committee consulted an acoustician. What emerged from these discussions were two significant changes to the ceiling: removal of most sound-absorbing material and the creation of faceted ceiling vaults to disperse sound throughout the room so that the voice of the congregation could begin to emerge. This acoustic renovation, along with many other small and large changes to the parish worship space, went forward in the summer of 1998, while the community gathered for Eucharist in the parish center gym. When parishioners returned to the church in September, the difference in sound was dramatic: a livelier acoustic providing an immediate boost to congregational singing.

In the early spring of 1999, a celebration took place in Roy: the organ, set up as much as shop size permits, is played, and a party follows. Soon after that, the organ is dismantled, packed in a truck (in this case filling a semi-trailer) and moved to its destination.

Upon arrival, the various components of the organ were unpacked and spread out on every level surface of St. Augustine’s interior. (IR photo courtesy of St. Augustine Parish, Spokane)

The organ arrived at St. Augustine on May 1. The parts were set on all available level surfaces, covering the pews in the church’s nave that first day and night. By the end of the first week, though, the frame of the organ was set up in the choir loft and all other parts were secured, awaiting their installation.

Once the mechanism of the organ was in place, the really painstaking part of the process began. Each of the over 2,000 pipes in the organ was individually adjusted for tuning, volume and sound quality. The pipe metal is quite soft; too much manipulation, especially of a smaller pipe, can ruin it and require melting it down and making a new one. That is why this process, called “voicing,” is the most time-consuming of all installation tasks. Voicing St. Augustine’s organ required more than a month of 8-12-hour days.

As soon as a stop was complete, it became part of the organ’s available sound palette. Over the course of two months, the organ grew gradually in sound. The completed organ’s sound is remarkable, very present in all parts of the church, thanks to the acoustic renovation, its full ensemble of stops, strong but not overbearing. In the 10 years since installation, the organ has served well in its primary role as leader of congregational singing, the sound of the St. Augustine Parish community now quite strong and vigorous.

“Sing to the Lord,” a new music document from the U.S. bishops, encouragies evangelizing the larger community through music. St. Augustine’s first public organ concerts were given in July 1999, as part of the regional convention of the American Guild of Organists. A dedication and dedicatory recital came later, on All Saints Day of 1999. Since then, regular concerts have included the very popular Northwest Bach Festival organ recitals.

The vision and hard work of the committees would have been for naught without the generosity of a great number of people. Special thanks are due to the major donors, the Dueñas family, whose substantial gift in memory of Jose and Concepcion Dueñas made the organ dream a reality. Also to the Miller, Herak, and Feinler families before them, who gave the parish its first pipe organ. Finally, and significantly, thanks are due the community of St. Augustine, whose gifts allowed church renovation to go forward.

(James Tevenan is music director/organist for St. Augustine Parish, a post he has held since 1995.)

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