Pipe organ returns to church in time for Easter services

Xavier Wilhelmsly, master organ builder at Staunton Organ Works, works inside the organ chamber at Trinity Church in Stephens City as his assistant, Bob Kirchman hands him the final pipe to complete restoration of the church's historic pipe organ. Courtesy Photo

After 24 months of restoration and storage, a 109-year-old pipe organ will soon be making music again at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stephens City, just in time for Easter Sunday service on April 5.

An Etsey pipe organ built in Brattleboro, Vermont, the organ has 713 pipes and 13 ranks. As part of the church’s $2.3 million expansion, the organ was sent to Staunton Organ Works in Staunton to re-leather its bellows, adjust its levers and to return its pipes.

The organ came to the church in 1932 from Baltimore and is believed to have been constructed between 1903 and 1906. It received adjustments and refurbishing in 1968 and an electronic tuner in 1998.

The Rev. Cameron Keyser, of Trinity Lutheran Church, said the organ’s return is another point of celebration for the Easter Holiday.

“There’s going to be a couple things we celebrate as far as a resurrection is concerned on Easter,” he said. “One will be Jesus and the other will be our pipe organ.”

Xavier Wilhelmsly, of Staunton Organ Works, inspects the last of 713 reconditioned and re-tuned pipes reinstalled in the organ at Trinity Church in Stephens City. The instrument just underwent a $56,000 restoration and will play again after exactly 24 months of silence at 9:30 a.m. Easter Sunday. Courtesy Photo

Keyser said the congregation was in agreement that the pipe organ needed restoration, which cost about $58,000.

“It was very much agreed that they would fund that restoration because it’s a really unique and valuable instrument,” he said. “There was an increasing amount of keys that would not play on it … the organist would push a key and there would be no sound.”

Keyser added, “That’s a little disconcerting. It’s like pushing on your brakes and there’s nothing there.”

It took seven months to restore the organ, but the eight-month expansion of the church turned into 17 months, so the organ had to be stored until it was completed, Keyser said.

“Obviously, when they were ready, we weren’t ready at all to put it back in the sanctuary, but we had sanded all the floors and refinished them, but we didn’t want to put the pipe organ in during that process because of all the dust in the air,” he said.

After the church expansion was completed in November, the congregation moved back into it, after meeting in a funeral home for 17 months. However, the pipe organ was delayed.

“We would’ve loved to have had it back by the Christmas service, but by the time we moved back in, the pipe organ folks were tied up in other jobs,” he said.

So “the cards fell” for the organ to make its return on Easter, two years to the day it left the church. Keyser said finding a pipe organ restorer is a tall task.

“You can’t just turn to the Yellow Pages and find people who work on pipe organs … like brick masonry, that’s becoming a dying art,” he said. “But we were able to find somebody who was knowledgeable and had good references.”

Despite churches beginning to shift to full bands, with electric guitars and drums, Keyser said pipe organs are still an important part of the Lutheran tradition.

“We are the church of Bach, we are a singing church,” he said. “It’s too bad young people aren’t interested in taking up the organ as much, but we have no problem finding substitute players from the conservatory when our choirmaster, who is our organist, is absent.”

The Trinity Lutheran Church, which is marking its 250th year in Stephens City this year, is located at 810 Fairfax St.

Contact staff writer Henry Culvyhouse at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or hculvyhouse@nvdaily.com