After a delay of almost two years, I am excited to announce that our new pipe organ is on its way from Padua, Italy! You may recall that we had contracted with Fratelli Ruffatti, one of the finest organ manufacturers in the world, to construct a new organ for us; the contract was signed in April 2018 and the organ was completed in March 2020. It was scheduled to be installed over the summer of 2020 but we all know why that didn’t happen. Like so many aspects of our lives, COVID-19 interrupted our plans since the four professional installers required to install our new organ weren’t allowed to enter our country. We have been in regular contact with Fratelli Ruffatti since then to determine when installation could occur. Finally, as travel restrictions were lifted this fall, we determined that it would be safe to ship the organ just a few weeks ago. It was crated into one full size and one half-size container and left the Ruffatti factory in Padua, Italy, on 15 December to be transported to the nearby Venice port. We learned just last week that it has departed its last port in Italy and is scheduled to arrive at the Baltimore Harbor at the end of this month! After clearing customs, it will be shipped here by truck and the installers will get to work. It is estimated to take about four weeks to install the organ and another three to four weeks to voice its 2,245 pipes in its 37 ranks. We expect that our new pipe organ will be fully functional in time for the Easter Vigil on 16 April. This is truly exciting news as we finally achieve our goal of providing for the best of musical instruments – a Bösendorfer piano that we have already enjoyed for more than two years and now a fine quality three-manual pipe organ – to accompany us in worship of our God!
As you can well imagine, installation of this organ will be quite a project and will require a little flexibility on our part. About half of the church nave (the main part of the church) will have to be cordoned off for a few weeks to house the organ parts as they are prepared for installation in the choir loft and the two positiv divisions above the church doors in the Daily Mass Chapel area. So, beginning in early February, seating will be a little more limited at our Sunday Masses. We hope to be able to continue to livestream our 9:30am Mass but that may be interrupted for a few weeks since this occurs in the choir loft. But, these temporary inconveniences will be minor compared to the tremendous benefit we will all receive from the splendid musical accompaniment that our very talented organists will provide for us from our new pipe organ!
This project started in the summer of 2016 so to refresh the memory of those who have been here since 2016 and to provide a background for those who have arrived since then, allow me to recap the reason for this project. The pipe organ that was originally installed in our current church was built in 1965 by Tellers, a now-defunct organ building company, for an organ teachers’ convention in Philadelphia and was never intended for church use. Since the construction cost for our new church, completed in 1966, was already substantial ($750,000 – equivalent to $6.2 million today), Fr. William O’Donnell, the pastor at that time, was very grateful for the generous offer by a parishioner to pay for the installation of this organ; it was a good temporary solution. It served our parish for almost 55 years but not without serious problems. Shortly after I arrived here, I discovered records going back to 1995 indicating that previous pastors had researched the possibility of replacing the organ since it wasn’t adequate for the church and was in constant need of maintenance and repair.
Besides being inadequate and in constant need of repair, our previous organ also raised serious logistical challenges for our musicians. Our old organ had only one console – in the choir loft – so, as you may recall, our musicians had to run from the choir loft down to the piano behind the altar and then back again throughout Mass because some pieces are best accompanied by an organ, others by a piano. And, there were acoustical shortcomings. The cantor and choir struggled with the delay between the organ and the altar area. And, because of its location, the organ was not suitable for use at small weddings or funerals that are celebrated in the Daily Mass Chapel.
Allow me to describe to you some of the other limitations of our old organ. While it was still in place, you needed simply look up into the choir loft to see that several of the pipes were sagging and leaning. That’s because they were made of inferior material and were beginning to buckle. If you had the opportunity to go up into the choir loft, you would have seen that the organ console was in very poor condition. The electrical control panel was clearly intended to be temporary and was outdated. The expression chamber was no longer functioning. Over the last months of its operation, you may have noticed that some of the keys were sticking and several of the stops were malfunctioning, as well.
I had looked into repairing the old organ and contacted three organ repair companies. After examining it, two of them wouldn’t even offer a proposal and the third offered an estimate at the cost of $75,000 just to repair it but without a guarantee since the organ had too many structural issues.
It was all of this that led us to decide to replace it. So, in the summer of 2016, under the expert leadership of Dr. Ted Latham, our Liturgical Music Director, we developed and circulated a request for proposals (RFP). As we prepared our RFP, we determined that we should also take advantage of this moment to address two important shortcomings of the current situation that I mentioned above: its logistical challenges and acoustical shortcomings. These would be overcome with an additional organ console near the piano and additional pipes in the daily Mass chapel area. So, we requested the inclusion of an option for an additional console to be installed where the temporary electronic organ’s console is currently located and antiphonal pipes above the doors in the Daily Mass Chapel.
Four organ companies submitted proposals. Cunningham Piano (with its headquarters in King of Prussia), which represents Fratelli Ruffatti, offered the best one. They would build a new organ specifically for our worship space for $1,050,000. It would be a state-of-the art instrument, using both age-proven building techniques and the best materials as well as the latest electronic technology to make it a versatile instrument that would serve us well and last a long time.
Ted, Dr. Valentin Radu (a parishioner who is also an accomplished organist – he provides organ accompaniment at our 5:00pm Sunday Vigil Mass) and I visited several churches in the area to examine and listen to organs that had been installed by two of the other companies that had submitted proposals. And, Ted flew to Florida to examine and play the only organ on the East Coast that Ruffatti had recently installed (founded in 1940, Ruffatti has installed over 500 organs worldwide). It was clear that the Ruffatti organ proposal was the best and would be perfectly suited to our church. So, after extensive consultation with both our Parish Pastoral Council and Parish Finance Council – and with their approval – I submitted the proposals to the Archdiocese in April of 2017 and received approval at the end of October 2017. The contract was signed by all the necessary parties in April 2018 and construction was begun. As I mentioned above, it was completed in March of 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, it is finally on its way, and after a brief time of inconvenience during its installation, we will all benefit from it for years to come!