Christmas came three weeks early to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Belle Chasse – on the Dec. 6 Feast of St. Niklaus, to be precise.
That morning, technicians completed final adjustments to the church’s new “Quantum” digital organ – a process called “voicing” in which the new instrument was sonically matched up with its new home’s acoustics and speaker system.
“He’s a beauty!” said Debbie Fagnano, Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s organist since 2001, noting that she had already named the new organ “Big Nik” in honor of its installation day. Fagnano, who also plays the calliope on the Steamboat Natchez, likened the wait for the pipeless instrument to “labor pains.”
“Even though it’s completely digital, you can almost hear air whooshing through imaginary pipes,” said Fagnano of the state-of-the-art organ manufactured by Allen Organ Co., of Macungie, Penn. Fagnano, who grew up in the Northeast playing exclusively on pipe organs, admits she wasn’t a fan of digital organs until hearing for herself how far they had come since the early 1970s.
“The sound produced was not a true sound,” she said of Our Lady of Perpetual Help’s previous organ, a digital model also made by Allen in 1974. “(On that organ), if you were playing a particular stop – like the flute – it was a reproduced sound, whereas the new organ samples an actual flute,” she said. “The organ makers have gone to cathedrals and sampled the sounds of those pipes, and digitally remastered that for these new organs.”
Fagnano estimates the new organ has expanded “by 100 percent” what she can do as a player.
“It’s just incredible!” she said, noting that the new instrument has 255 more “stops” than its predecessor.
“A stop is a little tab or knob that you pull out or push down that has a particular sound,” Fagnano explained. “They are named after the different lengths of (organ) pipes, like the ‘borden,’ ‘flute,’ ‘trumpet’ and ‘viola.’”
Adding exponential versatility to the new instrument is “Midi” computer technology that enables players to program it to sound like seven different styles of pipe organs.
“I can set the organ to sound like a classic Allen organ, but by pushing a little button in a box, those same stops will sound like they would in an English cathedral, or a French church, or something Mozart might have played on,” Fagnano said.
A mystery unfolds
But even more miraculous than the its stunning digital abilities and timely arrival before Christmas is how the parish was able to purchase the $70,000 instrument in the first place.
In spring 2010, Father William O’Riordan, pastor, received word that Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church had been included in the will of Father Leo Werner, a priest from the Diocese of Wheeling, W.V. who died in May 2010 at age 90. Father Werner was on a 2001 visit to his cousin in River Ridge when he read an article in the Clarion Herald announcing the pending ordination of Father Otis Young, current pastor of St. Joseph the Worker in Marrero.
“Father Werner was taken by the fact that Father Otis was a late vocation,” Father O’Riordan relates. “He went to the ordination and met Father Otis, and the two kept in touch whenever Father Werner came to New Orleans to visit his cousin.”
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, Father Werner included Our Lady of Perpetual Help – Father Otis’ parish at the time – as a beneficiary in his will, Father O’Riordan explained.
Unsure of when the late priest’s estate would be finalized, Father O’Riordan encouraged his Pastoral Council to pray for a generous donor to replace the old organ. In October a check for $60,000 arrived from the late priest’s estate, and an anonymous parishioner donated the remaining $10,000.
“Basically, the organ has cost the parish zero cents,” Father O’Riordan said.
Although the organ made its parishwide debut at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, Fagnano gave a few parishioners a preview of the enhancement. She played a sound she had been unable to play before – the twinkling stop called “celeste” – and the hymn “Away in a Manger,” using the “chimes” setting.
“We had chimes on the old organ, but they sounded like somebody banging on a tin can,” said Fagnano, who ended the impromptu concert with a full-organ rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
The parish plans to place a memorial plaque on the instrument in Father Werner’s honor and celebrate the organ’s arrival with a concert after Christmas.
“There was nothing wrong with the old organ, but we can do so much with this organ that we couldn’t do with the other one,” Fagnano said. “When brides came down the aisle, I could only get so much. Now I can make them feel like they’re coming into a cathedral!”
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.