Wild Air

 by Curtis Davies, St. Joseph Organist


Over the years I have been privileged to hear many organs, mostly in the US but also in Europe and the UK. Sound can be a powerful stimulant to the senses and it can also have profound emotional effects on an individual. Personally, I have generally preferred listening to organs that have the lush sounds of the more Romantic stops over the more distinct principles and mixtures from the Baroque period.

Now I had heard the organ at St. Joe several times as my children early on in their schooling went to the Catholic School and had attended Mass with them on several occasions. And so I was excited to finally get to sit down and play the organ at St. Joseph for myself.

Curtis Davies

The deep rumble of a full length 16’ Open Diapason in the pedal where it was more felt than heard, the shimmer of a Dopple Flute and the snarl of an Oboe. And perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the Vox Celeste on the swell that seemed to float thru the sanctuary on its way to some heavenly offering. Ahh yes, this was what I was hoping for.

But then the more I played and tried other stops the more I realized that this organ was dying! The shine began to fade as the ciphers started, dead notes, rushes of air because the pipe was pulled, stops that were entirely dead and dead notes across the same note of the entire Great on all stops! I left that initial encounter still elated at what was there, but disappointed that it was not quite all there!

Although I eventually learned to get around several of these road blocks and actually put temporary patches on some, the fact of the matter was that although it still sounded awesome, mechanically this organ was a shambles. Professionally I am a Ceramic Engineer/Glass Scientist and organ-playing, according to my wife, is just an expensive hobby. But once my family and I formally became part of the St. Joseph Church family, we dove right into the music program.

In our time at St. Joe, we have been blessed to have had three excellent priests all of whom clearly understood the value of sacred music in the worship service. With their encouragement, I began to ask reputable organ builders to come to Shelbyville and give their professional opinion about the state of the organ.

Thru the years, we had over 15 such builders crawl thru the innards of the “beast”. In my charge to them, all I asked just one question each time. “IF this was your parish and you were supporting the endeavors of this church’s ministries, what would you recommend we do with the organ??”

Of course we got 15 various answers, but one thing always seemed to be part of their answer – in less than 5 years over 50% of the organ will most likely NOT be playable, in less than 10 years, the organ will cease to play completely UNLESS immediate steps are taken to refurbish or replace several vital parts. Most often mentioned were that the old chests had deteriorated and the leather in numerous places was rotting away. The pipes were in excellent shape; the mechanical/electrical controls and wind systems were not. Now all we had to do is convince the congregation of the desperate state of affairs!!

During this time we changed priests three times and it usually took some period of adjustment from one priest to the next. But we finally got permission to form an organ committee. We had been meeting for a few months and we struggled with how best to proceed.

We had all the recommendations from the organ builders and knew the costs involved. Once again we had the thorny dilemma of having to deal with the monies in the Organ Savings account (or lack thereof). When we started, we calculated to have had somewhere around 15% of what it would take to refurbish the organ.

The idea of an electronic organ was put forth and based on the monies available began to look like our only viable option. And so we asked a prominent music store if they would be amenable to have the parish try one of their upscale electronic organs as an on-site “loaner” for a few weeks during Mass.

Although some parishioners said the electronic organ sounded OK, we never quite anticipated the overall adverse reaction to the electronic organ that occurred. Clearly there were some very definite opinions out there about this decision to go electronic. Plenty of opinions to be sure, but apparently not much money to back it up.

Or so we thought!

Believe me when I tell you that confession is good for the soul and there were numerous times when I needed to confess the less than Christian thoughts I had after a particularly difficult Mass with the “old girl”. Also it is hard to continually stand up and declare that the organ is on its last legs when the whole congregation just stares at you in total disbelief!

St. Joseph Catholic Church, Shelbyville, IN

Oh sure, we had several benefit concerts over the years and we raised a few thousand dollars here and there. Occasionally a deceased parishioner or their family would leave a bequest. However, it was becoming exceedingly clear that in spite of excellent intentions and efforts to raise the needed funds, we were not making any headway!

We needed and prayed for a miracle!

And then it happened! Ironically our miracle had absolutely nothing to do with the old wind chests or the mechanics of the organ. The electrical breaker apparently shorted out on the blower and the organ slowly “wheezed” into silence during a hymn. At first I couldn’t come to grips with what just happened and then I saw the stares from the congregation glaring up into the organ loft as they realized the music had stopped!!

I think I froze for a second or two, and then it hit me! The miracle we had prayed for JUST HAPPENED!! Quickly gathering my music, I went downstairs and up the main aisle with my music at my side. Sitting down at the Grand Piano in the front of the church I started to replay the hymn that was interrupted! My wife, the Cantor, calmly announced that the organ was being troublesome (That was an understatement!!) and we would start from the beginning!! The rest of the service was via our Grand Piano, but the aftermath of that incident was incredible!!

Until the problem was diagnosed, the organ “died” a few more times during service or during practice. It even happened during a Wedding Rehearsal! Finally the congregation seemingly came to grips with the obvious fact that the organ needed attention.

Fortunately, by that time we had all the mechanisms in place to start a campaign for funding. We so often speak about the Holy Spirit intervening and this is one instance where everything came together so fast and so completely that one has to believe this is one of those instances.

One of our organ committee members came up with the idea to have a “Pledge” drive. Now most people, including myself, cannot simply write out a check on the spot for several hundred or several thousand dollars. But IF members could make a small sacrifice over a period of time then the impact would be considerably more tolerable.

Our church bookkeeper cooperated in setting up a system where a “pledge” could be made over a 1, 2 or 3 year period or as a one-time donation. The church Finance Committee found this agreeable as well.

Thus it was that because of a “short” in the breaker box for the blower, we were finally able to put together a pledge campaign!

The results were absolutely phenomenal! In less than two months over 80% of the funds needed to refurbish the organ were committed. And in one last coup de grace (so to speak), a former parishioner on hearing of our project, sent a large (very large) cash donation that allowed us to announce that we had met our goal! With that we could now start the next phase of the project, calling Mr. Reynolds and signing the contract.

My family will be quick to point out that patience is not my strong suit and over the last ten years there were numerous occasions where I simply couldn’t come to grips with why God would allow this treasure to decay and just fade away! However as I was about to find out in vivid technicolor splendor, the truth in the old saying “that our time is not God’s time”. That was a frequent saying of my grandmother who was always quick to add – “BUT be faithful and he will provide’’. I trust you will concur that HE certainly did INDEED!


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