By Arlene Edmonds
Special to The CS&T
PHILADELPHIA – Much of what is special about the music in liturgies at St. John the Baptist Church resides in the sound of the historic organ.
The fact that the parish has a growing choir, a talented musical director and the fervor to pool its resources to refurbish the classic Austin Company musical instrument helps. But for those who have worshipped at the church in the city’s Manayunk section for most of their lives, there’s nothing like a traditional hymn resonating from the organ through the sanctuary and into the surrounding neighborhood. And a whole new generation is being introduced to the grandeur of traditional Church organ music.
Perhaps no one is more excited about this than the parish organist and musical director, Kevin Chun. He has been playing the 1906 organ for about a decade and has been there through every step of its extensive revitalization effort.
“This is just a fantastic instrument,” said Chun, who also serves as music director of St. Margaret Parish in Narbeth. “We’ve had to replace all the leather straps, the valves that open and close and just so many pieces of this organ. Sometimes we were able to have parts donated. Other times we were able to find a substitution. There were times we had to purchase new parts. The organ is still a little cranky, but its sound is still rich and it just takes a little imagination for you to hear how beautiful it sounds in the church.”
The organ has history beyond its acoustics, according to Chun. Oral church history reveals that the father of St. Katharine Drexel was the instrument’s first organist. Another rumor is that one of the church’s organists was a member of the Philadelphia Orchestra. “It’s got a potpourri of neat history behind it,” Chun said.
It is the older parishioners who find the organ music both mesmerizing and memory-provoking. After the 9 or 11:30 a.m. Mass Chun will often hear one of the mature parishioners reminisce about a special occasion or experience they had at the church from their childhood, adolescence or early adult years. They share how much they enjoy the organ, said Chun, and how elated they are that it is still being played.
Pipe organs are actually considered wind instruments even though they have a keyboard. They were invented more than 2,300 years ago. The Organ Historical Society lists 372 instruments among its “Historic Organ Citations,” and only 27 are in Pennsylvania. Among the local historic organs: the 1904 Los Angeles Art Organ Company instrument at the old Wanamaker’s building in Center City, an 1869 H. Knauff & Sons model at St. Malachy Church in North Philadelphia and the 1880 Hilborne Roosevelt classic organ at St. Charles Borromeo Church in South Philadelphia.
Chun brings more than 30 years of musical experience to his interpretations of the religious music. He admitted that as a child he was forced to take piano lessons and gave it up by the time he was in high school. He then turned to playing the violin and performed in secondary school ensembles. One day during his teenage years he opened the piano bench in his family’ s living room in Kew Gardens, N.Y., and found some of the music he used to play as a child. He went over to the old organ in the house and began playing.
“I said to myself, ‘This is cool,’ and I’ve been playing ever since,” Chun said.
He studied organ under the tutelage of Jerry Stief at the conservatory spanision of the Long Island Institute during the 1970s. While studying at the University of Pennsylvania he became enthralled playing the historic organ in Irvine Auditorium.
Chun guided and directed the organ restoration at St. Malachy Parish and served as organist for the former Good Shepherd Parish at 67th and Chester Avenue in Philadelphia.
There were also musical stints playing at Penn and Drexel universities’ Newman Center’s 10 p.m. Masses on Sundays. When he first started playing about 25 students and others would attend. After the organ was played even the shift workers from the West Philadelphia area hospitals and community members began attending services. “Sometimes we’d have more than 300 come out to those late night Masses,” Chun said.
In fact, Chun is quick to point out that organ music often attracts people to get involved in music ministry and church life in general. When he first came to St. John the Baptist, there were about four faithful choir members. As the organ began to be refurbished that number grew to a dozen. Now there are about 20 choir members, and it’s still growing.
He shared the story of two older women who, once they heard the organ, decided to join the choir even though neither had ever sung before. He could hear them in the hallway outside the choir rehearsal daring each other to walk in first. One told the other that she promised to go with her and she was not going to allow her to back out. The women are now among the choir’s strongest voices, according to Chun.
“That’s why playing the organ here is a labor of love,” said Chun. “It brings back the old days for many of the parishioners. … People sing from their hearts when they hear the organ. It strengthens my faith and everyone who hears it.”
Arlene Edmonds is a freelance writer and member of St. Raymond of Penafort Parish She may be reached at ArleneEdmonds@aol.com.
Organ music particularly suited to liturgy,
says director of Office for Worship
Father G. Dennis Gill believes that music should augment the liturgy at the Sunday Mass. As director of the Office for Worship of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia he works closely with local parishes to ensure they promote music that is spiritually uplifting and supports the texts that are read.
One of the ways that older parishes can ensure that the music they select is suited for sacred use is to make use of historic organs that may be present. These organs represent centuries-old traditions of playing Gregorian Chants and even more modern-day compositions that reflect the worship experience.
“Pipe organs give a voice to the music in the liturgy,” said Father Gill. “I think it is a suitable instrument for the liturgy. The constitution of the organ has its own prideful place among instruments. They can certainly enhance the liturgy, and I know I hold the organ in high regard. That’s why where they are available, parishes should make full use of them.”
“I think the presence of organs in our parishes gives people the opportunity to be exposed to the traditional music of the Church,” Father Gill continued. “The organ helps support the singing of the text during the liturgy. Where there are organs in our churches, we want to encourage using them. The churches that have taken advantage of the (instrument) have been very successful in glorifying God by using it in their worship.”
The Philadelphia Archdiocese Office for Worship’s mission is to foster liturgical renewal and develop full, active participation in worship by coordinating ongoing spiritual formation and education in liturgy, music, art and environment.
– Arlene Edmonds, Special to the CS&T