Brian T. Olszewski, The Catholic Virginian
The sacrificial part of Lent came early to St. Joseph Parish, Petersburg, as they gave up instrumental accompaniment to choir and congregational singing. They did not do so intentionally.
According to organist and choirmaster Anne Marie Donlon, the pipe organ worked fine when she played for the 8:30 a.m. Mass, Sunday, Feb. 11.
“Five minutes before the 11:30 Mass, I discovered there was no power,” she said.
The lack of power was due to a fire that destroyed the instrument’s motor and blower.
After she notified their pastor, Father Brian Capuano, she said he told the congregation, “‘The organ is broken. God gave us voices. Pick up the hymnals and sing.’”
They did, and they have. Meanwhile, the 22-member choir, which sings together once a month, and sings in various groups at each of the parish’s three weekend Masses, has been singing a cappella.
“We need to bring it,” Donlon said. “It (our singing) has improved because everyone is listening to each other.”
Father Capuano concurred.
“There’s a real interest from people in music; they’re listening and singing. They’re engaged,” he said.
Nonetheless, Donlon would like the organ back in service soon.
“We would like everyone to hear how badly we need it back,” she said, referring to the “starkness” of the a cappella sound.
Noting that the organ has been “pieced together in various stages,” Donlon said the technician who is working on the repairs likened the organ “to a car with 500,000 miles on it.”
According to Father Capuano, the casework of the organ dates to the 1920s, but he termed the instrument a “composite,” with replacement parts coming from the 1980s.
The cost of a used motor and blower, with 10 to 20 years of use, is $6,500. A used pipe organ runs between $300,000 and $500,000, the technician told Donlon.
Father Capuano, who has served at St. Joseph since 2012, said the parish was “very lucky” the fire didn’t spread.
“There was a lot of debris in that area (of the choir loft),” he said, noting the fire went out on its own “very quickly.”
The parish is familiar with the devastation fire can cause. In 2011, an electrical fire damaged its parish hall so badly that it had to be razed. The replacement was dedicated in summer of 2017.
Noting the organ’s proximity to the right tower of the church, Father Capuano said the fire could have done serious damage to the building had it not burned itself out.
“We’re very grateful it wasn’t more of an issue,” he said.
While the choir and congregation continue to sing a cappella, Donlon has an “Easter hope.”
“We hope to have electrical work done by mid-March with the goal of having the parts installed by Easter,” she said.