Tuesday, November 26, 2019

“An Incredible Organ for an Incredible Church”

NLM received the following contribution from the St. Francis de Sales Oratory in St. Louis.

An Incredible Organ for an Incredible Church
Steven Ball
Recently, St. Francis de Sales Oratory, an apostolate of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, with the blessing of the Archbishop of St. Louis, was pleased to announce the signing of the contract for Karl Wilhelm Opus 123, a three-manual and pedal, 58-rank freestanding mechanical action organ.

This is the third instrument to be installed in this remarkable and often photographed structure. St. Francis de Sales is the largest Gothic Revival building in the city of St. Louis and was recently named most beautiful church in the nation according to a recent online poll conducted by "Art & Liturgy". Having the 6th tallest church spire in the country, it is also the largest church structure on Historic Route 66--quite a unique set of distinctions for a church already known to readers of NLM as being the exclusive home for the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and an important hub for Institute activities in the Midwest.

The Wilhelm organ replaces a III/22 rank Wicks organ from 1924. The Wicks organ had been in failing health for some years and had experienced several alterations, including removal of some of the original pipework. It was itself a replacement of the original  II/15 organ by J. G. Pheffer & Sons from 1897 which had been relocated to St. Mary's Church in Altus, AK, where it is still preserved today.

Director of Sacred Music Steven Ball, an experienced organ consultant, led the search for the right instrument throughout North America and Europe. After studying dozens of possible transplant organs , four were selected as finalists. Several considerations led the investigation in the direction of the Wilhelm instrument, including the exquisite detail of the casework, extremely traditional methods of construction and voicing, and the overall tonal design which hearkens back to the original German ancestry of the parish. The instrument is well suited, in particular, for Baroque music, the accurate performance of which is central to the musical needs of the Oratory.

The fact that master organ builder Karl Wilhelm agreed to come out of retirement to personally oversee the installation and voicing of this instrument as his last major project played a tremendously important role in the organ’s selection. Raised in Weikersheim, Germany, he apprenticed with August Laukhuff of Weikersheim, Germany, and with W.  E. Renkeutz of Nehren bei Tübingen, Germany. After briefly working with Metzler & Söhne of Dietikon, Switzerland, and later with North America’s oldest organ-building firm, Casavant Frères of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, he founded Karl Wilhelm, Inc. of St. Hyacinthe. In 1966 he relocated the firm to Mont St.-Hilaire, Quebec, where the shop remained active building organs until the early 2000s. The firm has built hundreds of organs, not only across the United States, but also in Europe and Asia.

On a technical level, the new instrument of 58 ranks is considerably larger than either of the previous organs and of a very different tonal and mechanical design. Drawing on influences from both the German and French schools, the instrument has a specification described by Mr. Wilhelm as “classical” and is one of his largest organs. Using a suspended mechanical key action, the solid white oak cases house a carefully engineered system which is both elegant and rugged. Windchests are constructed of mahogany and the interior is designed to be easily accessible for maintenance. Stop actions are also completely mechanical.

At this point in the construction process, the casework is largely assembled, the action installed, the winding finished, and some of the first of the 2,670 pipes have been installed—including those that make up the highly polished tin facade. Many more months of work are anticipated for the careful tonal finishing of the organ for the famously magical acoustics of the Oratory.

In June 2019, the Oratory launched a fundraising effort for $400,000. In addition to the actual purchase of the instrument, there are further costs to correct substantial existing problems with the infrastructure. This fundraising effort includes the necessary updates to the electrical and lighting in the gallery, restoration and extensive repairs to the original 1908 choir loft floor, and other improvements to the existing infrastructure which the removal of the existing organ will make possible.

For supporters of the traditional liturgy, this is a very special and highly visible opportunity to place an extraordinary piece of art directly at the service of one of our nation’s most important centers of liturgical culture. Already the instrument has drawn extraordinary regional interest and attention to the liturgical and musical life of the Oratory.

A healthy portion of the resources needed to complete the project have been secured, but more will be necessary for its completion.  Interested readers hoping for an opportunity to evangelize through beauty may check in for regular updates concerning this unique project at traditionfortomorrow.org and desalesheritagefoundation.org.

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