|1906 Woodbury organ at St. Pat's|
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Music has always been at the core of Catholic worship. Hey, even the Bible tells us “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” That joyful noise is often associated with the organ. In the 1830s Bishop Fenwick of Boston wrote in his diary that 2/3 of Catholic churches had little or no singing, just the sound of the organ. He even complained that one immigrant church in Lowell (guess who) had what he considered “bad” singing. (One historian actually says it was not the Irish immigrants’ fault since they had been forbidden to openly worship in their homeland, and thus never had much practice in communal singing.) To help the situation, the Bishop, an amateur singer and musician himself, wrote a book of songs with lyrics to be used in the Diocese of Boston. (We weren’t big enough to be an Archdiocese yet.) Our parish archives actually hold an original 1830s copy of Fenwick’s work.
At St. Patrick’s we know that the original wooden church of 1831 had an organ. It was a second hand organ purchased from a Protestant church and was made by local musician Ebenezer Goodrich. In his year’s accounting of church expenses in 1840, Father James McDermott paid the church organist $40 for his services. Fr. McDermott bought another organ in 1847 for the cost of $1400. That one was made by George Stevens. It had 22 registers (or stops) which refers to the pipes that produce the notes. Ever hear of “pulling out all the stops?” There you go. It means to give it all you’ve got.
When the present church was opened, a grand building such as it is, it needed a grander organ. The E. & G. G. Hook organ installed in 1859 cost $3000, quite a sum for the time, and had 33 stops. There is a possibility this organ was powered by water to pump the bellows. The organ was in place right up to the fire in 1904 when it was destroyed. Some pipes were salvaged and put into a Chelmsford church. The organist at the time, Professor Johnson, actually entered the church during the fire to save some church music.
When the church was rededicated in 1906, the organ that was installed was considered one of the finest in New England, with no exaggeration. It is called a divided organ with the pipes being separated on each side to make a clear view of the grand stained glass window of St. Patrick preaching to the Chieftains at Tara. A February 1904 entry in the Lowell Sun described its installation. The Jesse Woodbury Company of Boston designed the organ to fit exactly in this space. The organ is of 4 parts; the choir organ with 11 stops, the pedal with 10 stops, the great with 11, and the swell with 15. A special addition was a sanctuary organ that was installed that was connected to the grand organ in the choir loft. Viewing from the floor, the organ’s pipes reach almost to the ceiling. What most people don’t recognize is that the grand round, gold-painted pipes they see are fake. The sound actually comes from the pipes behind those.
Taste in music has changed greatly over the decades. Many of my generation recall organist Charlie McGrail blasting out Holy God We Praise Thy Name. As soon as the priest intoned “Ite missa est.” (Go the Mass is ended) and the congregation responded, “Deo gratias.” (Thanks be to God.), Mr. McGrail would blast the life out of the organ with a grand recessional. You could feel the vibrations of deep tones hitting you as you left church. Today, the organ is not in condition to be played, but not for long. Father Crahen continues with his undaunting efforts to restore the church to its original beauty. Now that the interior painting, mural restoration, window re-leading, and other repairs have been completed or in stages thereof, the organ is the next task. The pipes are filled with dust and debris. Each of the dozens of pipes is labeled with its particular note and needs to be removed and cleaned and then artfully replaced. The massive bellows, which pump air into the pipes, have dried out and need to be replaced.
Many were filled with emotion at the school’s recent reunion when they saw Fr. Charles McGrail, former organist, now priest, celebrating Mass. Fr. McGrail spent many years at the keyboard leading the different choirs through the annual cycle of music of the church. Many wished they could hear the grand organ once again. Father Crahen has contacted many professional restorers who have given their assessments of what has to be done. They all tell the same story. It desperately needs work. But they also all tell another story. The Woodberry organ at St. Pat’s is a true treasure. There are few left of this quality left and needs to be revived and played once again to the glory of God.
Please contact Father Crahen at St. Patrick rectory if you are interested in the project. To the right of our blogspot you will see a list of YouTube videos. There are a couple of the organ being played in former daays.