Spiritual voice restored

After 9 months of repairs, pipe organ returns to renovated Bon Secours center chapel

October 26, 2008|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,Special to The Baltimore Sun

After the pipe organ in the chapel at Bon Secours Spiritual Center underwent full-scale renovation, workers returned the instrument to a spot just a few feet from its former location, near the back wall of the balcony.

But the difference - visually and sonically - was dramatic.

Seven towering gold-colored pipes now hang in front of the balcony railing and dozens more ranging from a few inches to more than 6 feet in length are mounted on either side. Formerly tucked away inside the wood case, the pipes are suspended above the congregation, where they can be seen and heard.

The rest of the 800 pipes reside in a new wood cabinet just behind the railing. A row of wooden slats on the front can be opened to adjust the volume.

With a new design, repaired parts and electronic upgrades, the organ is a welcome sight after many years when it worked poorly - or not at all - and nine months of refurbishing in a New Jersey workshop.

"It is a wonderful voice that can be raised to God," said Thomas E. Little, the center's executive director. "It is a wonderful way to share some talent and uplift people's spirits."

On Thursday evening, the center in Marriottsville will celebrate the return of the organ and the completion of a broader renovation of the chapel with a dinner and concert.

The chapel renovation is part of about two years of construction work at the 40-year-old center that entailed upgrading the overnight accommodations, meeting rooms, food service and grounds. In addition to sprucing up the organ, the work in the chapel included reconfiguring the area at the back to open up more space, upgrading the lighting and installing a fountain.

Founded as a home for sisters of the Roman Catholic order of Bon Secours (meaning good help), the center still serves as the sisters' provincial administrative offices, a residence for retired and infirm sisters and a place of learning for newer members.

In the mid-1960s, the sisters decided to open their doors to the public, expanding the site's role as a place for spiritual retreats. Today, the center offers accommodations for individual or group retreats, regular educational and spiritual activities and space for other groups with compatible missions to hold meetings.

In recent years, the center has been seeking new ways to reach out to the public, including movie nights, a Mother's Day brunch and a series of concerts. Little said he plans to have organ music as part of the regular atmosphere of the chapel and envisions the organ as the centerpiece of a concert series next year.

The organ was installed in the early 1960s, when the center was built. It was made by the M.P. Moller Organ Co. in Hagerstown, which once was among the world's largest organ makers.

Over the years, the leather covers that opened and closed the pipes wore out, Little said. The deterioration grew worse as time passed.

"People had to learn to play songs that didn't have certain notes in them," Little said.

Eventually, the organ was not used at all.

The center hired the Peragallo Pipe Organ Co. of Paterson, N.J., to overhaul the instrument. The company was founded in 1918 by John Peragallo Sr., and later his son and grandsons joined the business. The Peragallos build six to eight new organs each year and repair many more. They hold maintenance contracts for more than 400 locations, including St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

Many pieces of the Bon Secours organ could be reused, said Frank Peragallo, co-owner of the company.

"Moller built a fine product," he said. "It was easy for us to rebuild."

Little liked the concept of reviving the organ, a longtime fixture in the chapel.

"We didn't want to throw it out and start over; we wanted to conserve what we were given," Little said.

That approach also reduced the cost from as much as $1 million for a new organ to $300,000 for the refurbishing.

The organ is still powered by an air pump, roughly the size of a washing machine, tucked behind the wall adjacent to the balcony. Once turned on, the air flows continuously, and electronic signals from the console where the organist sits open and close the pipes.

The electronic connections have been changed to digital switches, and the signals run to the pipes through a single thin cord instead of a bundle of hundreds of wires. The digital signals are recordable so a performance can be stored and replayed with no organist.

Not only more striking in appearance, the outer pipes produce a fuller and richer sound, while the hundreds that remain inside are better suited for accompaniment, Peragallo said.

New pipes expanded the repertoire of sounds the organ produces, including flute, oboe and "celeste" pipes that lend an ethereal sound.

After reinstallation, the primary task that remained last week was to hear how the organ sounded. With an instrument made up of 800 pipes, it is not as simple as flipping on the power switch and playing some hymns.

Workers spent most of the week sounding each note and adjusting the tuning. They balanced the volume, focusing first on the pipes that make up sets and then on the sets that make the overall sound

A few more days was worth the wait, Little said.

"We feel it is an important component of what we want to do here in terms of worship," he said. "I like the idea that we are continuing the process that was begun by the sisters, but we've improved upon it."

The event to celebrate the renovations at Bon Secours Spiritual Center starts a 3 p.m. on Thursday and is open to the public. Information: 410-442-1320.

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