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Church Organ Hits High Note at 80
by Paul Grondahl, Staff Writer, The Times Union, Albany, NY, October 21, 2011
It has been an organ for all seasons and all reasons.
With a booming sound pumped out of 3,233 pipes, it has enhanced a full range of rituals and worship services since 1931 at the former St. James Church, renamed St. Francis of Assisi after a 2010 merger with St. John's-St. Ann's of the South End.
Well-known organists from near and far have come to play the mighty Casavant and to test their musical mettle on its 52 ranks, 21 chimes and 61 bells.
On Sunday, the Casavant's 80th anniversary will be celebrated with a public organ recital and an appreciation of a stalwart congregation whose working-class parishioners built the luxurious instrument in the depths of the Great Depression. Despite financial strains, they have managed to maintain it.
“It's a beautiful organ that has served this parish with wonderful fidelity for 80 years,” said Sister Patricia Houlihan, CSJ, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet and music director and parish organist. She organized the anniversary organ concert, called The Pipes Are Calling.
“It’'s an instrument that can express the entire range of worship from prayers to songs, in a powerful way,” she said.
The event also will be a fundraiser, because an old pipe organ is a musical money pit and in nearly constant need of repair. Even with ongoing repair work, the Casavant could use a $100,000 overhaul.
In 1931, the largely blue-collar and Irish parish signed a contract for $36,950 with the Casavant Brothers Ltd. in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. The top-of-the-line, hand-built instrument was meant to be a gift pledged by a prominent Albany family. They fell on hard times during the Depression and could not make good on their promised donation. The family's identity was shielded at the time and has eventually faded away.
The parish dug deep and restructured the organ contract with Casavant. The organ was finally paid off in 1943 after parishioners answered the appeals of the pastor, the Rev. Joseph Dunny.
The final check was sent more than a decade after the dedication concert on May 31, 1941. Pietro Yon, a world-renowned, Italian-born performer and organist at the Vatican and St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, performed.
Local organist Agnes Armstrong, who will play on Sunday, conducted extensive archival research from Albany to Boston before locating the program and music for the eight organ pieces that Yon played. The program will be reprised on Sunday by eight organists.
"It's very exciting," said organist Donald Ingram of Latham, who will play the most challenging piece, Alexandre Guilmant's first organ sonata in D minor, a 25-minute tour de force. "This is a wow of an instrument," he said. "It has a foundational sound and the acoustic environment of the church is excellent, with no bad echoes or returns. The Casavant is at its best playing romantic music because it has a symphonic, almost orchestral sound."
The performers, who are members of the American Guild of Organists, called the Casavant one of the largest and richest-sounding organs in the region and one they enjoy playing -- despite a few malfunctioning ranks that need a costly re-leathering process.
"This is like being back with an old friend," said Robert Brown, of Guilderland, who played the Casavant as the organist at St. James from 1978 to 1986.
"It's probably the best organ I've ever played," Brown said. "The reason I'm coming back to play it is due to Sister Pat. She's the spark plug that got this all going."
Houlihan, a retired music teacher at Catholic Central High School in Troy, considers herself fortunate that the Casavant is the first and only organ she's played.
"I'm blessed to play on this organ and in this church, where all the music that has been played since 1931 still seems to float in the air," she said.
Click HERE to the audio of the organ with Sister Patricia and Don Ingram playing.
(Reprinted with permission of Mike Spain, Associate Editor, Times Union)
Sister Patricia (center) with organists (left to right) Agnes Armstrong, Todd Sisley, Bob Brown, Tom Savoy, Don Ingram and Charles Jones