Kilgen Pipe Organ
Restoring an 80 year old pipe organ in a church in Brooklyn
The restoration of the pipe organ at Our Lady of Refuge was not something that was planned. Had it been, the obstacles might have seemed too daunting and the project, in all probability, would never have been undertaken.
In 2006, Fr. Michael Perry and Joe Vitacco met in the School Hall at Our Lady of Refuge after Mass one Sunday. Joe asked Fr. Perry, the pastor of the parish, if he could drop by later to have a look at the pipe organ, which had not been used for many years. Its problems were obvious—the leather on two of the six bellows had rotted away after 73 years and a rush of air could be heard. The organ pipes were choked with dirt, out of tune, and out of regulation. Hundreds of them no longer could be played, or worse, would continue to play with minds of their own.
Fr. Perry lamented that he did not have funds in the parish's budget to repair the organ. However, those who have met Joe Vitacco know that he is not one to be deterred, and he offered to have at least the two bellows rebuilt by a friend in Alliance, Ohio.
In addition to the organ's troubles, water managed to penetrate the deteriorated pointing of the church's masonry construction, causing damp and crumbling walls in the organ chamber and elsewhere. In order to safeguard the instrument and preserve the church building, the masonry had to be repointed and the walls of the organ chamber ripped down to the brickwork and replaced. This meant completely removing the organ. Fortunately, the parish was able to find the needed funds for this work.
All of the organ's 1,800 pipes were removed from the church, and most of the instrument was shipped to Alliance, Ohio, for safekeeping, and what parts remained in Brooklyn became unsightly additions to the parish's dining room for several years. The question, however, remained: How could a parish like Our Lady of Refuge raise the money needed to restore and reinstall the organ? The church's more than 1,000 parishioners are a devoted group and due to their sacrificial generosity the church is financially stable—but Fr. Perry could not justify asking them to undertake the organ project as an additional burden.
The Internet and social media have revolutionized the world and this might be the way to raise the needed money to restore the organ. Joe Vitacco asked Fr. Perry about this idea and to trust his fund-raising abilities. Fr. Perry told him to "Just do it." Stephen Tharp, a highly respected concert organist, donated his services to record a video of the tired, old organ before it was removed from the church. Joe then built a website for the parish and encouraged them to open a separate parish bank account for donations to the organ fund. A PayPal account was established in the parish's name to allow online donations.
A century ago there were several pipe organ factories in New York City, but not one of them exists today. For a variety of reasons, several other organ builders were not interested in doing the job. Not to be thwarted, Joe asked his old friend Bob Schopp of A.R. Schopp's Sons, Inc., the largest supplier of new organ pipes in America, for help. Mr. Schopp provided Fr. Perry with a practical plan to restore the organ's many thousands of intricate parts. Then Joe asked Michael Quimby of Quimby Pipe Organs to find a way to fit in the organ's reinstallation between the firm's much larger projects, such as the restoration of the famous organ in New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The two organ builders collaborated with each other to make this project happen.
For six long years, Joe and Fr. Perry kept working on the organ project. Joe kept the donors informed of progress or lack thereof with videos, photos and recording on email, facebook, twitter and youtube; Fr. Perry wrote personal thank-you notes to each donor, large and small alike. Finally, on the morning of June 17th of 2013, two large trucks pulled up to the doors of the church, After eight men worked hard for more than four hours, the parts of the organ were back inside of the church, sprawled all over the building like some giant Chinese puzzle waiting to be assembled. Six weeks later, a team of capable people led by Eric Johnson of Quimby Pipe Organs put the finishing touches on the organ. Through careful regulation of the mechanism and pipework, along with architectural and acoustical improvements in the building, the organ probably sounds better today than it did when it was installed in 1933. On August 31st, 2013 the organ was first playable and on September 6th New York City Organist Renée Louprette made the first recordings of the finished pipe organ.
October 18th of 2013 Our Lady of Refuge Church was filled to capacity with people singing an unaccompanied hymn. Bishop DiMarizo, the Ordinary of the Brooklyn Diocese then blessed the organ. Father Michael Perry, the Pastor of Our Lady of Refuge Church and Olivier Latry, an Organists from the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris invoked the organ eight times in a dialog of prayers which were followed by eight improvisation on the restored pipe organ. Then the people in the church sang the same hymn in English, Creole and Spanish but with the majestic pipe organ accompanying their voices. The recital then began, Michael Barone of Pipedream then introduced all of the works with verbal program notes. The works were by: Bach, Franck, Widor, Vierne and Saint-Saens. The evening ended with Father Perry intoning the Salve Regina which was picked up by the entire congregation and accompanied by Mr. Latry on the beautifully restored pipe organ.
The organ at Our Lady of Refuge is proof that no matter if the odds are great or small when a group of dedicated and talented people get together with a common goal and work relentlessly to achieve something very special they will win overall.
Joe Vitacco retired from involvement at Our Lady of Refuge in the winter of 2016. He worked with a team for 10 years to oversee the fundraising and restoration of the parish's pipe organ, also organizing 7 organ recitals.
Any question about the organ should be directed to the rectory.
Soli Deo gloria
The inner city parish church with a fantastic newly restored pipe organ.
A pipe organ restoration paid for by the worldwide organ community and a parish that wants to share it with all people who love great music in New York City. Come hear world-class organists play in Brooklyn.
James Konzelman, Hoboken, NJ
Our Lady of Refuge Church
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