Since this past summer, the historic 1890 Carl Barckhoff pipe organ in the gallery of the 1874 St. Mary’s Church building in Auburn has been undergoing a complete restoration. This pipe organ is thought to be the builder’s largest extant organ, and unlike most of the organs of its period, survives in a relatively unaltered condition. Because of that, the organ enjoys a citation from the Organ Historical Society recognizing it as an historic instrument.
This late 19th century American tracker action pipe organ is completely mechanically operated; the only electricity used in this instrument is for the blower motor and for the console lighting. After over 125 years of continuous use, the organ's thousands of small moving parts were due for a thorough cleaning and repair to get everything back into alignment.
Parsons Pipe Organ Builders of Canandaigua has been entrusted with this massive restoration project. Richard Parsons, president of the company, commented that “the organ restoration was approached in a way that respects the historical context, while, in some limited fashion, incorporating materials and components that improve the functionality and longevity of the organ. The craftsmen devoted to this project will have invested close to 7,000 hours in the restoration, installation and tonal finishing of the organ.”
This pipe organ is not preserved as a museum piece, but rather an organ that supports a rigorous liturgical schedule. In an article in the Catholic Courier (the Newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester), Dr. Aaron James, St. Mary’s interim music director, mentioned that to many parishioners, the organ is more than a musical instrument. It's an integral part of the parish. For over 125 years, the organ has been used for more than 70,000 public events, including Masses, weddings and funerals.
When the organ company held an open house in Canandaigua upon completion of their restoration work, so many parishioners were anxious to get a sneak view of the instrument that a full size bus was rented. In addition to the bus load of parishioners, over 200 other folks attended the open house on Super Bowl Sunday afternoon.
In the same Catholic Courier article, Joel Morehouse, who served as St. Mary's music director from 2012 to 2016, stated that when he started at St. Mary's, he felt that he had inherited an original, unrestored Rolls Royce. “The Barckhoff organ was running reasonably well and had been lovingly maintained over the years, but it was clear that it would need total restoration soon if it were to remain in service. The organ had not been neglected but was worn out from constant use.”
In mid-February Parsons' staff began putting the organ back together, and it will be played publicly by Palm Sunday. A formal dedication and concert is scheduled at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 21.
“That's good timing,” said Morehouse, 33, in the Courier article, “because there seems to be a recent resurgence of interest in organ music among young people. Music from the 1970s and 1980s is considered 'contemporary' church music today, but that's not the music of the younger generation. Most seekers and young people today are a lot more open-minded about tradition and history than their parents."
“The organ's enormous range of sounds makes it an effective liturgical instrument because it brings out the different characters and emotions associated with the different seasons of the liturgical year,” noted James, 30, in that same article.
"Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a great lover of music, commented that this variety of sound in a pipe organ is a good analogy for the communion of the church," James said. "Just as an organ consists of many pipes with different sounds that nevertheless create a harmonious whole, the church consists of many people with different gifts and charisms, which are ultimately united through faith in the praise of God."
To read the full article by columnist Jennifer Burke concerning the pipe organ at St. Mary’s Church, go to the Catholic Courier website at catholiccourier.com. The specific article about the organ may be found at http://catholiccourier.com/regional-life/finger-lakes/cherished-organ-returns-to-auburn-church/. A link to the free digital edition of the Catholic Courier is http://catholiccourier.com/store/digital-edition/.
If you are interested is seeing more pictures of the organ restoration project, go the Parsons Organ Builders Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/ParsonsPipeOrganBuilders.