A pipe dream no more Organ overhaul: The $500,000 face lift of a historic, 2,200-pipe organ is beautiful music to a Catonsville congregation.

March 02, 1996|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

After 75 years, the "Queen of the South" has succumbed to age.

But after a $500,000 face lift, the wheezing, groaning and clanking should end. And the queen -- a historic, 2,200-pipe organ at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel in Catonsville -- soon will be making sweet sounds again.

"For a few weeks, it sounded like cowbells," said Jan Schwab, a four-year choir director at the chapel. "It will be great when it's restored and everything works and we hear the lush sound."

She added: "It's the best organ I've ever played. It's spectacular."

Only the organ's impressive facade remains in the chapel -- a reminder of the glory days when acclaimed New York musician Gaston Dethier called it a "jewel" after a 1920 dedication recital.

Eighty-five-year-old Joe Hemler, who was 13 when he became captivated with the chapel organ, recalls the Rev. George A. Gleason creating powerful music as he directed the choir.

"He could really get something out of the organ. He could make it shake the building," said Mr. Hemler.

But time took its toll, said the Rev. Leo Larrivee, chaplain of the Renaissance-style chapel, which is owned by the Sulpician Fathers and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Workers have dismantled most of its pipes and shipped them to Canada for a six-month overhaul. "It will get a new lease on life," said Donald Du Laney, representative for Casavant Freres, which built the electro-pneumatic Opus 808 organ and is handling the restoration.

According to Simon Couture, an assistant to Casavant's tonal director, the organ will be completely renovated. Work includes cleaning and releathering the organ, rebuilding the existing console and making a second one. Most of the original pipe work will be kept and regulated.

Nationwide, 1,400 Casavant organs exist, the first having been built in 1895. One of the largest -- 10,615 pipes -- is being installed in Fort Worth, Texas. But even as the company builds organs around the world, the time has come for older ones to be repaired.

The face lift at Our Lady of the Angels Chapel won't come cheap, however. To raise money, the Charlestown Retirement Community, where the chapel is, still is seeking contributions.

More than one-third of Charlestown's 2,500 residents are members of the chapel -- which offers Roman Catholic and Protestant services -- including some residents who remember the organ from earlier days.

"I love organ music," said Mr. Hemler, who came to live at Charlestown 11 years ago and returned to the chapel as an altar boy. "I go to Mass. I say the rosary. That was instilled in me here."

"I didn't realize what an intricate piece of machinery it is until I got back here," said Thomas Crist, 71, who was a student in 1938 when the property was the home of St. Charles College and Seminary. "I thought every church had organs like that."

He and his wife, Dorothy, 69, moved to the retirement community three years ago and are active in the church choir. "It's like coming home," said Mr. Crist, who remembers singing Gregorian chants there when he was 13.

After the seminary closed in 1977, it remained vacant for four years until Charlestown bought the 110-acre site.

In the main organ's absence, another organ, which later will be donated to the Charlestown auditorium, is being used.

"It's small but has a wonderful sound," said Mrs. Schwab, who directs about 12 choir members, the oldest of whom is 86.

Previously, the elderly choristers have had to maneuver steep, narrow steps to the loft. When the organ restoration is complete, the second console will be installed in the nave so the residents can sing there.

"That will be nice," Mrs. Schwab said. "It's a really fun time. [The seniors] love to sing. They can't play football anymore."

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