In 2006, Brooklyn native and current Washington DC resident Joe Vitacco returned to his childhood parish, Our Lady of Refuge, and asked Father Michael Perry if he could see the Kilgen Opus 5163 that began his lifelong passion for pipe organs.
Considering the state of the instrument and the cost of restorations, Joe and Father Perry might have resigned it to the fate of the most pipe organs in Brooklyn–of the 900 once in the borough, only about 70 are regularly used, and fewer than 10 are in excellent condition.
Over several years, however, with hundreds of thousands of dollars raised and support from across the globe, the organ is just about ready to play again. It returned from Ohio and Missouri to the Foster Ave. church this Monday, June 17, and is scheduled to be dedicated at a concert in the fall.
“I started coming here with my parents and grandmother in 1972,” says Joe. “When I was a kid, I was fascinated by the pipe organ. Kids get fascinated with all kind of things, and for me, it just clicked. For most people in the organ world, it’s like that–it’s a little bit of an addiction.
“When I came back to visit and met Father Perry, I said, ‘I grew up here, and I’d really like to see the organ,’ and he said, ‘I don’t have money in the budget to do anything with it, but you’re welcome to go look.'”
“As I’d seen it, it had only ever been playable if you knew what keys to skip over,” Father Perry says. “But then there just became too many keys to skip.”
The condition of the walls, via Facebook
Upon inspecting the organ, Joe realized water was coming through the brick pointing in the church walls. The plaster in the organ chamber, and in other parts of the church, was rotting. He says what got the ball rolling on the restoration was the pipe organ’s impending removal, which was unavoidable if the leakage was to be fixed.
“Father Perry didn’t want to see the organ thrown out or damaged,” Joe says. “He felt a responsibility to people who, during the Great Depression, gave their money to build this church.”
The organ deserved a grand exit, so one dedicated group made it serviceable for a final hurrah.
“Some great organists came and played,” Father Perry says, “and the choir from Notre Dame came and sang at Mass, and then everything was ready to be taken out.”
The organ was lowered piece by piece, via Facebook
Joe’s experience in the organ world, along with his work in sales and marketing, led him to the next few crucial steps. “I got a wonderful company to carefully box and crate the organ, and we got it out of the church. And I figured while it was out–well, if I need to go out and raise money for something, I’m gonna figure out how to do it.”
He knew the effort would be expensive, but was insistent that the restoration be of the highest caliber. Father Perry agreed to let him start raising funds.
“The organ, for the parish, is a treasure,” Father Perry says. “It was a treasure that was hidden in the balcony, not working, until Joe showed up.”
Still, he can’t resist a jab at Joe’s excitement over the instrument. “Organ people are worse than Harley people,” he says. “These people are fanatics.”
Joe started a PayPal account, asking donors to sponsor pipes through the church website. “That brought in a good amount of money,” he says, “and the church had barbecues and bake sales and concerts and dinners–the parish all got involved in it, too–and a few people in the organ world who have never set foot in this church were very generous, as were a few people in the parish.
“I said to Father Perry, ‘We can’t ask all these people for their hard-earned money, then put the organ back and let the walls get the pipes dirty again.'” So the rotting plaster in the organ chambers and other areas of the church was torn down, the brick pointing in was fixed, and new plaster was put up.
Scaffolding during work on the church, via Facebook
Joe also brought in an acoustician and architect to make the ceiling, once designed to absorb sound, into something that would enhance it. A specialist came in to work with the particular challenges of the church, like that the organ was on its left side.
“The competition with electric organs, in one sense, doesn’t exist. In another sense, it’s a question of finances,” says Father Perry.
“The two of us worked together like Frick and Frack,” Joe says, “and the amazing thing was, a lot of the money came from people who’ve never even been to Brooklyn–just people like me who, as two- or three-year-olds coming to church, fell in love with the pipe organ, and thought it was the best thing in the world. They related to the fact that someone was attempting, through a grassroots movement, to try to restore a pipe organ, and in a first-class manner.”
Bob Schopp and Joe at A.R. Schopp’s Sons, via Facebook
“So I ended up hiring two companies,” Joe says. “The pipes went out to A.R. Schopp’s Sons in Ohio, the biggest manufacturer of organ pipes and mechanisms in the United States, and everything was cleaned and restored and the tuning was fixed.
“Then there’s Quimby Pipe Organs in Warrensburg, Missouri, which has been around since the 1970s. They’ve built pipe organs all around the United States, and cared for Saint John the Divine‘s gigantic pipe organ after the fire several years ago. They put it into five tractor trailers–and some of these pipes are 32 feet long–and took everything back to Missouri and renewed it all, and then reinstalled it.”
The Kilgen from Our Lady of Refuge is smaller, with about 1800 pipes ranging from the size of a pencil to just under 20 feet long. Joe explains the 25 ranks into which pipes are divided give an organist the ability to blend sounds “the way an artist would mix colors with a brush.”
Returning to why he chose Quimby, he beams, “Every organist in New York City has remarked that the organ at Saint John the Divine is utterly fantastic. They just finished building a brand new pipe organ in San Diego, too.”
Like with Saint John the Divine, Quimby will be reinstalling Our Lady of Refuge’s organ. They’ll be at the church all of this week, returning August 4 to finish the project.
The organ disassembled, via Facebook
The fundraising effort took all six-plus years the organ was out of the church. “It took too long,” Father Perry smiles. “We’re crawling in under the line.
“A lot of things happened in those six years. There was a stock market crash, there was an earthquake in Haiti, and other natural distasters in the countries where the people in this parish come from. So a huge amount of money to save the organ came from people outside the parish. It came from countries all over the world. This is probably the best-publicized organ restoration in the history of organ music.”
“It’s funny,” Joe says. “I was just in France and Spain looking at organs, and because of Facebook and the email list, people in other countries know about this. These are people who are Christians, Protestants, people who are agnostic, across the board, everyone just wanted to help us do what we were doing.”
“Our emphasis has been on the organ as an instrument,” Father Perry says, “not the church part of it, just–here’s an instrument. It could be any place. It happens to be here, and it’s our responsibility to maintain it, and to share it.”
Joe adds, “People have a very narrow idea of what organ music is. They associate it with vampire movies, and something sinister, and there are so many more flavors than that. The music deserves to be heard.”
Joe made a benefit recording featuring, among other things, the largest working pipe organ in the world and organists including Jean-Pierre Leguay, Philippe Lefebvre, and Olivier Latry of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where Father Perry has lived for the past 17 summers. Latry, in fact, will be dedicating the organ at a concert on October 18.
“He’s one of the most famous organists in the world. People either love him or they hate him. If they hate him,” Father Perry smiles, “it’s probably because they’re jealous.”
Latry, via Facebook
As the fundraising process continued, Joe introduced Father Perry to the inner workings of the organ world.
“I took him to an organ convention in Ohio to speak,” Joe says, “and I don’t know if he’s forgiven me for that.”
“They get together and they sit at dinner and they say, ‘You’ve got a 16-foot… whatever. In my church, we have an 18-foot one. And it’s like, really? It’s like a ‘size matters’ thing? They’re crazy, and I’m sitting there saying, ‘Oh, that’s nice.'”
Father Perry uncrosses his arms and leans forward again. “I have to say, I had a good time.” He smiles. “That’s not what I hold against Joe, of all the things. And one of the pleasures I got–maybe that’s not the right word, I don’t know what is–is how many people at that convention came up and thanked me for saving the organ. People came to me in tears.”
“You should see some of the letters people have written him,” says Joe.
“I also licked I can’t tell you how many stamps,” Father Perry says. “We sent letters to everyone who donated, no matter what the donation–we’re grateful.”
Finally, this Monday, the organ returned home in two trucks–one from Ohio, and one from Missouri.
“I’m like a kid on Christmas morning!” Joe says. “This organ will last another generation.”
In addition to being played regularly by church musician Glenn Balck, Father Perry says, “The intention is to have a few concerts every year. The organ will be concert-worthy, good enough for more professionals to come and play.”
He says he’s excited to make this neighborhood a destination for people who wouldn’t normally make the trip from Manhattan, and in addition to working with Joe’s contacts in the organ world, the church plans to reach out to the music program at Brooklyn College.
“Without people from all over the world,” he says, “we would never have been able to do this. The only thing I know is, I would never have taken the organ out or destroyed it, which a lot of people would have–but without Joe, I would never have restored it. This was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done. All I did was say yes to him about 150,000 times.”
It seems like if there’s one thing Joe and Father Perry agree on, it’s that the most important part of the project is sharing the organ with the community.
“A pipe organ is too big to keep in your pocket,” Father Perry says. “Jesus said, ‘Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket,’ so we’re going to blast our light all over the place, and take it as it comes.”
In the years that the organ was being repaired, over $250,000 was raised by more than 1,400 people around the world to restore it to its original glory. It will be dedicated at the church, located at 2020 Foster Ave. at Ocean Ave., with a concert by Olivier Latry on Friday, October 18. To see the historic organ dedicated by one of the top players in the world, buy tickets at Our Lady of Refuge online.