2016-10-13 / Around Town

Historic St. Mary’s Organ Undergoes Repairs

By James Merolla


A small fraction of the 1,674 pipes that range in size from less than one inch to 16 feet. It took a construction crew 10 days to fully dismantle the Casavant Op. 2462 organ,* which will now be restored in Quebec, Canada by its original makers. (Photos by Jon Dillworth) A small fraction of the 1,674 pipes that range in size from less than one inch to 16 feet. It took a construction crew 10 days to fully dismantle the Casavant Op. 2462 organ,* which will now be restored in Quebec, Canada by its original makers. (Photos by Jon Dillworth) It almost died one Christmas, but will be gloriously resurrected on Easter.

Piece by piece, tube by tube, bit by bit, Canadian and Newport workers have taken 10 days to dismantle, box and label the 1,674 pipes – ranging from just one-half inch to 16 feet in length – of the magnificent Casavant Op. 2462 organ that has given 58 years of nonstop service and glorious sound to parishioners at St. Mary’s Church.

The massive organ was painstakingly de-piped Oct. 2-11 by Gaudet Construction, of Newport, for an Oct. 12 trip to Quebec, Canada, to be overhauled by its original builder, the Casavant Frères Company, which oversaw the dismantling.


Two sculptures of Mary that haven’t been seen in nearly six decades were revealed. Two sculptures of Mary that haven’t been seen in nearly six decades were revealed. This is the first time since the organ was installed in 1958 that it has been removed from the famous church.

The organ is the last of its kind. Casavant Frères, which constructed it by hand, was founded in 1879. From its inception, the company built organs according to a specific tonal style, up to and including the St. Mary’s instrument. It represents a final iteration of the tonal style initiated in the 19th century by the two brothers who founded the company, Samuel and Claver Casavant.

“After the installation of the pipe organ at St. Mary’s, Casavant moved in a new stylistic direction. Ours is the last organ representative of the historic style of the company.

Its sound has been unaltered, so we are very interested in preserving this historic sound,” said Liturgical Music Director Cody Mead, who has played it like a maestro for much of the last four years.

The pipes are being cleaned and restored. The operating mechanics of the organ are being refurbished and updated.

“Several groups of new pipes will be added to create a wider variety of sounds, including a new set of 16-foot-long metal pipes which will adorn the organ’s facade, soaring nearly to the ceiling of the church, and a new set of trumpets which will complement the existing trumpet pipes with a slightly different sound,” explained Mead. “The facade of the organ is being redesigned to be more in harmony with the neo-gothic architecture of the historic building.”

“This spectacular instrument is as vital to St. Mary’s as the columns or the roof to the church. It is truly a musical treasure that has graced our church for thousands of weddings, baptisms, funerals, concerts and holiday liturgies,” said Pastor Kris von Maluski. “When the organ died on Christmas Eve in 2014, we knew it was time to make a full examination due to its age and apparent deterioration to ensure that we preserved its magnificence beyond its original splendor for the future.”

Refurbishing the organ must be done by hand, using historic techniques by skilled craftsmen at the Canadian company’s facility. In its absence, St. Mary’s will rebuild the choir loft space to ensure that upon its return, the environment is structurally sound, aesthetically pleasing, and perfectly matched with the church’s remarkable and historic 188-year-old Gothic Revival architectural style.

The choir loft rebuilding project will include revealing stained glass windows crafted in Austria that have been partially obscured for nearly 60 years. In bringing the last pieces to the sidewalk, two sculptures of Mary were revealed that haven’t been seen in nearly six decades.

The organ will be resurrected on Easter Sunday 2017 for a special Mass.

“The pipe organ of St. Mary’s Church is a unique instrument of great beauty and an irreplaceable treasure. It is an accomplishment of sensitive musical design and detailed craftsmanship,” said Mead. “As a testament to the skillful art and the history of organ building, the organ is of historic significance and has great value not only to the church but to the greater Newport community and beyond. This restoration gives us an exciting opportunity to preserve an important part of history, which still plays an active role in our lives to this day.”

St. Mary’s Church was built in 1848. For two centuries, it has held a prominent place in Rhode Island’s history as the state’s first Roman Catholic parish, and in American military history as the church that served as the U.S. Navy Academy’s chapel during the Civil War.

Thousands of visitors come to St. Mary’s throughout the year for liturgical services, to admire its stunning architecture and 42 breathtaking stained glass windows, or to attend special music events and performances by its choirs and guest musicians.

“Our music ministry has seen significant growth in numbers and vitality in recent years, and the restoration of our organ and choir loft is part of recognizing the importance of music and facilitating our existing ministry and future growth,” Mead added.

The cost of the organ restoration is $574,000, while the tab for the choir loft restoration will come in at approximately $175,000. The church will soon launch a fundraising campaign, titled “Souls in Harmony,” to help pay for the nearly $750,000 expense.

The church is working on a variety of concerts, Masses, music educational workshops, and lectures to celebrate its completion. The pipe organ will be in Quebec for five months. It will take one month to rebuild. But music will still fill the nave.

“During the interim, we have rented a small electronic organ,” said Mead.

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