The Pipe Organ


I’ve always wanted to write an article about my love for pipe organs.  I realized this while reading a book review of The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind, by Mark Abley.   This is his latest book, and is about his father, Harry Abley, a cathedral organist, and his life-long struggle with depression.

His father managed this depression by his devotion to playing the pipe organ.  Music lightened his mood and helped him in his work and family life.  I think that for me the pipe organ has always been a joy.

My love of the pipe organ began early in my life.  As a young boy, I envied my sister who substituted as church organist for daily Masses.  Our parish organ was a two manual, ten or twelve stop pipe organ – that in my father’s day was hand pumped (he took a turn at this).  To me, however, it was stunning and made (at least I thought it did) the floor tremble.

In my own elementary school days my music teacher decided that I would be ideal to accompany the singing at the daily (usual Requiem) parish high Mass.  The instrument was a one manual, five stop electronic organ, but again for me it filled our small parish church resoundedly.

Later I graduated to a two manual (two half keyboards) Hammond organ at St. Paul’s high school, and as a novice to a harmonium whose reed stops actually did create the sounds.

My greatest joy, however, was for the first time to play the three manual Casavant pipe organ at St. Ignatius parish in Winnipeg.  To me the sound was magnificent and it still lingers in my memory.

My brother was also fascinated by pipe organs and also liked to re-build them.  Often I would be treated to long concerts as he practiced, or I would get to help him by turning pages or pulling stops at difficult changes of registration.

My great joy, however, was to sit at the console and play (very simple compositions), and hear the organ’s many voices.  A favourite place to do this was at Loretto Abbey on their two manual Casavant that was originally in the chapel at the Jesuit Seminary on Wellington St. (the first Loretto Abbey).

Sitting at the console of a pipe organ (provided it is not more than four manuals high) is a marvelous experience.  I wonder sometimes as I am watching them if Formula One drivers have a similar experience manipulating the computers and devices of their racing cars while the motor thunders and the constant gear changes roar.

Probably the organ console is much safer.  But perhaps not for an auditor.

One day as I sat dutifully listening to the changes of registration my brother was experimenting with on the grand organ at Quebec city’s basilica, a tour entered the church.  Just as a senior passed near my pew, my brother decided to end a composition with full organ (all stops open).  As he did so, the tourist gasped and clutched her chest.  To her “Mon Dieu!”, I concernedly replied, “Ce n’est rien – c’est seulement mon petit frére!”

Joseph Schner, SJ, is a professor of Psychology and Religion at the Toronto School of Theology.

  • Vicky Chen
    Posted at 05:27h, 24 April Reply

    Fr. Joe, if you are in the Burlington area, you are always welcome to try out our two manuel Casavant mechanical in Holy Rosary. It is custom built to the size of our small church. May not shake the earth like other larger pipes but has very pure tonal quality. Just email me.

  • John Montague
    Posted at 06:48h, 24 April Reply

    In the late nineties I remember your brother when Regis College was on St. Nicholas Street, suggesting that a pipe organ be installed in the Chapel. President J.A. Loftus was amused. I also remember he gave an excellent organ recital at St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Bloor St East.

  • Sami Helewa
    Posted at 10:44h, 24 April Reply

    Nice fond memories. Well done.

  • Esther Gilbert
    Posted at 11:15h, 24 April Reply

    Just uplifting to hear your story. I wish I were nearby to hear more.

  • Rita Mary Coté
    Posted at 12:34h, 24 April Reply

    Good morning, Joe. I remember your occasional « mini concerts » at Loretto Abbey in TO. Interesting that your article is here on IgNation as they announce that the organ at Notre Dame de Paris is not damaged by the fire.
    Blessings of these Easter days to you. Rita Mary

  • David St Amand
    Posted at 11:34h, 25 April Reply

    Not often enough, George and I walked to Our Lady’s Church in Guelph. He made the organ there sound like no other person I have known; music as it should be.

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