If you happened to venture within listening distance of the First Congregational Church of Chatham on Oct. 19, you might have heard a little shouted French.
That’s because an employee of Casavant Freres, a pipe organ-building company founded in 1879 in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec, was directing two of his co-workers and six men from a local moving company as they hauled 1,501 pipes for the church’s new organ up the front steps.
“He would shout instructions to his co-workers in French, and then immediately shout in English,” says the Rev. Joseph Marchio, the church’s pastor, director of music and organist. “There was no language barrier.”
The total weight of the organ is 12,000 pounds, with some single pieces weighing in at 800 pounds. The thousands of pieces that make up the organ arrived in Chatham on a 53-foot truck on Oct. 17. Of the 1,501 pipes, about 850 were reconditioned while the remainder are new. Added will be stops such as an oboe, three or four flutes and a herald trumpet.
Now that the organ is inside the church, the Casavant Freres employees are working six days a week to install it; a fourth employee was expected to join them a week later. The entire process will take between four and five weeks. The final three weeks or so will be devoted to “voicing” the organ, making sure none of the pipes are too loud or too soft. Families of pipes — oboes, flutes — will be voiced together.
“It’s kind of like a choir — you don’t want one to stand out against the others,” Marchio says. Marchio, who worked summers during high school and college with an organ builder, has said that when the organ is complete, it will be “a world-class instrument” in the style of “a little English cathedral organ.”
Despite the pandemic, the church, located at 650 Main St., has been undergoing a $2.5 million renovation known as “Vision 2020” which includes the $700,000 upgrade to its 48-year-old organ. Renovations include improving handicap access and installing a new elevator that will run from the basement to the attic.
In the sanctuary, the northern wall has been pushed out 24 feet and a room created behind the sanctuary. The organ cabinet — that is the place where the organ pipes are housed — was pushed back several feet into a recessed chamber, adding much-needed space to the chancel. Previously, the chancel was crowded with the organ’s console, the choir, the minister and more shared space. Yet when the project is complete, when you sit in a pew in the sanctuary, very little will look different.
All this is being done in time for the church’s tercentennial. And as with everything else, the pandemic has sidelined commemorations, although the church did celebrate the anniversary remotely on June 14 with a program rich in historical photographs. Roughly a year ago, the church moved its weekly services to St. Martin’s Lodge just down Old Harbor Road and rented a digital organ to provide music during church services there. But for the past several months services have been conducted remotely. Following the pre-recorded service, an 11 a.m. coffee hour is conducted live, via Zoom. Marchio also says an evening prayer via Zoom, and conducts virtual office hours.
Last August, Marchio and a small delegation of congregants would have traveled up to Saint Hyacinthe, about 50 miles from Montreal, to test-play the organ as “kind of a ceremonial thing,” Marchio said. However, with the Canadian border closed, that was not possible. In Saint Hyacinthe, as in much of the world, coronavirus cases are spiking. After negative COVID-19 tests administered in Canada, the trio from Casavant Freres traveled to Chatham a week ahead of schedule. And instead of staying in the guest house of a church member, they are lodging in a hotel in Hyannis.
Despite everything, the arrival of the organ is an exciting event. The new organ was built “to exact specifications” of the church’s space, Marchio says. And although we live in a modern world, the art of organ-building is not that different from Bach’s day.
To celebrate the installation of the organ, Marchio planned 18 months of concerts. In addition, the Chatham Chorale, which was started in the church’s fellowship hall below the sanctuary, is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Whenever it becomes safe to do so, Marchio will conduct the group in Dan Forrest’s “Requiem for the Living.”
“That will be the first event to celebrate the organ, the church and the chorale,” Marchio say. Meanwhile, Marchio plans to create a high-quality video of the new organ.
“In addition to leading the sacred music at church, the instrument will be a wonderful addition to the rich musical life on Cape Cod,” Marchio adds.
As a part of the church’s fundraising efforts, discarded organ pipes will be sold as keepsakes. They range from the size of a pencil to 16 feet. By blowing into them, you can create a noisemaker.
If the current schedule holds, the church staff will be back at work in the church on Dec. 1, although the office will remain closed to the public. In-person worship will not begin before February 2021, although that date may change.
For information on donating to the Vision 2020 project and the organ, visit www.chathamcongregational.org.