Sunday, June 19, 2016

A history of worship accompaniment at St. John

The instruments that have supported worship over the years began with a melodeon, which was used until 1883 when the first organ replaced it. An addition was necessary to the first facility (at 8th & Locust, near Heppner's on E. 7th today) to accommodate this organ. The organ transferred to the second facility (on the site of today's third facility) just 8 years later. The debt on the second facility proved long in retirement, and fundraising fatigue had set in. The church council decided in 1914 to authorize an organ committee to search for a new organ that matched the size of the new church and to raise money for purchase and installation. The committee selected a Wirsching Organ of 37 ranks – one of the largest constructed by that company. The first organ was then donated to Dr. Martin Luther College in New Ulm, a college St. John Lutheran had helped establish. That first organ served the college until 1983 when it was dismantled for parts. Today’s Martin Luther College has one of the largest and most prominent collections of organs in the world.

St. John Lutheran dedicated the present organ on November 21, 1915. The church council recorded in its minutes that the organ project, while partly to relieve fundraising stress to retire the building debt on the second facility, was also done to prepare to mark the 400th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in 1917. 

Philipp Wirsching (1858-1926) was a native of Hesse, Germany, and an apprentice of August Laukhuff whose company is still a supplier to the organ industry. Wirsching immigrated to America in 1886 and formed his own organ company in Salem, Ohio. From 1894-1905, Wirsching suspended his company due to the economy. In October 1914 his company went into receivership under the presidency of his son, and during this time built the organ at St. John Lutheran. Philipp Wirsching himself scaled and voiced the pipes of this organ. The various iterations of the Wirsching organ company are known to have built 37 instruments both for residences and churches. There are 3 known to have been installed in Minnesota, with the one at St. John Lutheran likely being the last extant. Significant for this instrument, its console was electric from the start, rather than pneumatic. The console was replaced in kind in 1959 when the original failed.

On February 25, 1964, the City of St. Paul engineer found some cracking in one of the walls of the second facility and ordered it closed. The church council immediately began plans for a third facility, which was dedicated four years to the day later. The 1915 Wirsching Organ had been disassembled and stored by Howard Nolte under the supervision of acclaimed organ maintenance expert Arthur J. Fellows. While unclear from church council minutes as to the intent for the organ during the transition to the third facility, long time members of the congregation are under the impression that the 1915 Wirsching was meant to be sold for its parts. Indeed, correspondence from Howard Nolte proposing to purchase certain parts is consistent with that memory.

Raising funds to pay for the third facility also proved challenging and resulted in a delay in reinstalling the organ. Arthur Fellows began installation in January 1969 and finished in May of the same year. Fellows continued to clean and tune the instrument until 1979 when he was replaced by Murray Burfeind. During Burfeind’s era of care the organ was altered to be “baroque” in character, which was a trend in expectations in the 1980s. The instrument suffered greatly as a result. Burfeind was succeeded as the organ technician of record in 2003 when Allen Moe of Wadena was hired.

In 2003, respected organ consultant Prof. Edward Meyer, recently retired from Martin Luther College in New Ulm, wrote a report that has guided the restoration of the organ since. The organ is in significant need of repair to restore the original sound and look of the 1915 Wirsching organ. 

The organ remains one of the most significant artifacts documenting St. John Lutheran Church along with being a highly significant artifact of organ history in Minnesota. It is estimated that 83 percent of the current organ pipes are original with a substantial portion of non-original materials simply being added to the instrument. One consultant speculated that the leather on the windchests appeared to be the original, and that typically leather lasts no longer than about 80 years. The congregation has consistently taken care of this organ. The congregation has already invested approximately $50,000 into the restoration since 2003, plus another $100,000 into upgrading the climate control in order to reduce environmental impacts upon the instrument. 

Our many and very talented organists have covered for the numerous dead notes and tonal dissonance that would otherwise disrupt worship. The time is approaching when we will need to bring this impressive instrument back to its full function. Can we do so before the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation in October 2017?

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