Renovations Start on Chapel Organ and Loft

A new organ will be installed in the chapel choir loft, and the loft itself is undergoing renovations. The work will result in a more nuanced instrument suitable for liturgical uses and capable of meeting rigorous academic recital demands as well as an enhanced, more flexible choir loft.

The choir loft project is supported by the Rita M. McGinley Foundation, and the new organ will be provided thanks to an anonymous donor.

The work is anticipated to have minimal impact on the campus community while it is ongoing, according to Stephen Steinbeiser, director of liturgy/music, and Debbie Kostosky, sacristan. The chapel itself will remain open and accessible.

A temporary organ has been installed near the altar to provide music for Masses, weddings and other occasions. For the Saturday, May 24, pharmacy and the Sunday, June 1, law school Baccalaureate Masses, seating still will be available in the choir loft. The loft will be closed to the public after June 1.

The choir loft renovations will provide a more flexible space, with moveable risers and seating replacing the fixed risers and pews, said Greg Fuhrman, project director from facilities management. This will allow for other configurations for vocal groups and other musicians.

The current railing facing the sanctuary, with its original Gothic wood carving, will remain; however, a low brass rail will be added on top to meet safety codes. Two small wood spindle railings on either side of the loft, in front of the stained glass windows, will be replaced with glass railings so that the windows are more visible from the loft. Where the current loft has carpeting, the redone loft will have wood flooring to help move the sound into the pews below. The blower and motor supporting the organ will be encased in a soundproof box, but the pipes will be gloriously showcased with a loft floor-to-ceiling facade, Steinbeiser and Fuhrman said.

Temperature, humidity and the acoustic quality of furnishings used in the choir loft are all part of the renovation challenges as well as sight lines to the altar and other logistical considerations for musicians, they explained.

More space in the loft will be dedicated to the console of the new organ, which will be about twice the size of the old one, Steinbeiser said. Weighing about as much as three cars, Fuhrman said, it will require additional floor reinforcement.

Where the former organ had two keyboards (or manuals) and 25 ranks of pipes, the new one will have three manuals and 27 ranks of pipes, said Dr. Ann Labounsky, professor and chair of organ and sacred music.

The new organ is being handcrafted by Dan Jaeckel of Duluth, Minn., an organist, composer, historian of liturgical music and leading craftsman. He already has received four sets of pipes from the old organ to incorporate the sounds of flutes and strings voiced by vintage silver pipes.

“He’s integrating them into the new organ because they have such exquisite sound,” Steinbeiser said, explaining that silver and wooden pipes will be incorporated together. “That’s going to be part of the beauty; the functionality of this new instrument reflects how diverse and intense the sounds are.”

Campus liturgical and academic musicians, as well as students majoring in sacred music and dedicated to studying and performing pipe organ music, are eager for the upgraded instrument and surroundings. Although the organ will provide the tools capable of meeting many musical challenges, the priority will remain to provide musical praise and accompaniment for Masses and ceremonies in the chapel, a fact not lost on those planning for change. “The chapel is the heart of religious life on campus,” Fuhrman said.

Earlier this month, the former organ, made by Tellers Co. of Erie, was removed from the spot where it had been since at least the 1930s, according to Steinbeiser and Kostosky. The loft-to-ceiling pipes essentially had their own room at the rear of the chapel but, Steinbeiser said, “the sound was buried.”

A jumbo blower that feeds air to the pipes was housed in the bottom floor of Old Main, in the registrar’s office. Some of the Tellers organ’s parts will reappear, integrated into the new system; others will find homes elsewhere, in instruments and rooms in the Mary Pappert School of Music, in local churches and other locations.