New Organ Will Be Centerpiece Of Congregational Church Renovation

By: Debra Lawless

Works remove organ pipes from the First Congregational Church. COURTESY PHOTO

Through its long history, Chatham has been known by many monikers, and now it may be acquiring a new one.

“Without doubt, Chatham will be the organ town,” says the Rev. Joseph Marchio, pastor, director of music and organist at the First Congregational Church of Chatham.

The church, celebrating its tercentennial this year, is joining St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church and the First United Methodist Church in upgrading their organs. The Congregational organ will be what Marchio calls “a world-class instrument.”

One blustery cold morning last week Marchio led a visitor on a tour of the church at 650 Main St., which is undergoing a renovation. Since November, Marchio and administrative assistant Mary Lou Foley have been using offices at the Methodist church up the street until the renovations are complete, scheduled for Sept. 1. The congregation moved its weekly services to St. Martin’s Lodge Hall. To provide music during the church services, the church has rented a digital organ.

The $700,000 upgrade to the organ is very much tied in with the church’s $2.5 million renovation. Renovations include improving handicap access and installing a new elevator that will run from the basement up three floors to the church’s attic and be large enough to hold a gurney in an emergency.

The entire project, known as “Vision 2020,” is all about improving the accessibility, functionality and hospitality of the church, Marchio says.

In the sanctuary, the northern wall will be pushed out 24 feet and a room will be created behind the sanctuary. The organ cabinet—that is the place where the organ pipes are housed—will be pushed back several feet into a recessed chamber, adding much-needed space to the chancel. Previously, the chancel was crowded as the organ’s console, the choir, the minister and more shared space there. Yet when the project is complete, when you sit in a pew in the sanctuary very little will look different.

The church’s organ was built in 1972 and donated by Robert Harned, a local physician who was then the choir director.

The organ “served us well until recently when it was showing its age,” says Cam Koblish, a member of the capital campaign committee who is overseeing the overall construction project. Marty Koblish, Cam’s wife, is, along with Bob Hessler, co-chairing the capital campaign. “Parts like leather seals and valves start to show age.”

The 48-year-old organ, built in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec by the firm of Casavant Freres, had 1,200 pipes which were housed behind the chancel. In the front, known as the façade, 18 large metal pipes were visible while the rest were hidden behind a latticed screen. In 2007 the church acquired a new electrified console—that is the key and footboard portion of the organ. The console can be moved around to various places for worship and concerts.

The new organ will have 1,550 pipes. Of these, about 850 will be reconditioned while the remainder will be new. Added will be stops such as an oboe, three or four flutes and a herald trumpet.

“The bride comes down the aisle, she wants the trumpet tune,” Marchio says. The trumpet will also be used for “festive hymns and concerts.”

Now, here’s how Chatham will become an organ town. While the new Dobson Pipe Organ that will be installed at St. Christopher’s is of French design, Marchio says, and the organ installed at the Methodist church a few years ago is of German design, the new organ at this church will be “a little English cathedral organ.”

No two organs are alike, and any given church will choose the one that sounds best in its sanctuary, says Marchio, who worked summers during high school and college with an organ builder.

“In the Protestant tradition, hymn singing is fundamental,” Marchio adds. The organ needed at this church is one to accompany the human voice. “It will do more than great justice.”

Down in the church’s fellowship hall, the construction crew is taking a coffee break. Along the side of the room the organ pipes that will not be reconditioned are standing in racks against a wall. Pipes range from the size of a pencil to 16 feet. Marchio picks one up and blows into it, creating a sound somewhat like a trumpeting elephant, startling everyone in the room.

Each pipe has a price tag as they will be sold as a part of the fundraising effort for the new organ. If additional funds can be raised, the organ can eventually have 1,800 pipes and even more stops.

“People who are into history and want a little piece of it—how fun to have an organ pipe from a church that’s going to be 300 years old,” Marty Koblish says. She suggests the pipes could be blown at the town’s annual “noise parade” during First Night celebrations.

In another commemorative effort, Forest Beach Design has designed a custom charm or pendant in sterling silver and 14-karat gold that shows the exterior of the church. The charm and the organ pipes will be sold through the church.

When the organ is completed this summer, Marchio will travel up to Saint Hyacinthe, about 50 miles from Montreal, and test-play the organ. When the pipes finally arrive in Chatham, it will take about five weeks to unpack, install and “voice” them.

For information on donating to the Vision 2020 project and the organ, visit www.chathamcongregational.org.