New Orleans church again faces danger; Mercer Islanders replaced organ just months ago

As Hurricane Gustav tore through New Orleans this week, the parishioners of Blessed Seelos Catholic Church and their friends at the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church (MIPC) prayed to get through yet another natural disaster.

Last spring, 37 members of the MIPC worked tirelessly to build a majestic Moller pipe organ for Blessed Seelos, which lost the original during a fire in 2003. Island resident Carl Dodrill, president of the Pipe Organ Foundation, a nonprofit charity devoted to restoring damaged pipe organs, led the project .

Months later, the Islanders anxiously waited to see how the church — and organ — would weather Hurricane Gustav. When the Reporter went to press on Sept. 2, Blessed Seelos was closed, as most of New Orleans had been evacuated.

“We sent the parishioners an e-mail saying that we’re praying for them,” Dodrill said on Sept. 1. “We haven’t heard back yet but I’m sure they’re busy getting people out of [New Orleans].”

Last May, the Reporter ran a front-page feature on the Blessed Seelos organ the week it was finished being built in Dodrill’s garage. Days after the story went to press, a handful of MIPC members drove the Moller — all 816 pipes packed carefully in bubble wrap — to New Orleans, where they erected the towering organ back into its original home.

The members of Blessed Seelos were speechless with gratitude, according to Dodrill.

“The organ played two Sundays and had a spontaneous standing ovation because they were so pleased with the instrument,” he said. “It was playing in a stunning way.”

But then disaster hit again.

Twelve days after Dodrill and his team left New Orleans, the Blessed Seelos steeple was struck by lightning.

“Lightning rods prevented the church from catching on fire again, but produced an electromagnetic force. It messed up anything that you would call electronic, including the pipe organ,” Dodrill explained.

Devastated by their third disaster in six years — Hurricane Katrina wiped out the church in 2005 — a head parishioner woefully informed Dodrill of the terrible news over the phone. The Islander was shocked.

“The whole thing is so disarming,” Dodrill said. “You do this huge expenditure, you get your baby working, and 12 days later it’s reduced to a non-working piece of disfunction.”

It was a strong blow. But not strong enough to deter Dodrill.

Less than two months later, the Islander, accompanied by his wife, Halie, and electronic expert Chuck Huffington, was on his way back to New Orleans — this time by plane — determined to fix the damaged instrument. Despite a flight delay of 13 hours, the team arrived in New Orleans on Aug. 4.

“After two flights that took us through the night, we were able to work only one half day on Tuesday [Aug. 5], due to general fatigue,” Dodrill wrote in an e-mail to members of the MIPC. “This put pressure on us during the rest of the [four-day] trip to get all the work done.”

A diagnostic test showed that two of the organ’s three electronic rectifiers had been damaged, along with six Syndyne driver boards — the pieces that connect the organ’s keyboard with its wind chest. On top of replacing the damaged system, the Islanders improved each component to prevent future problems.

“We rewired portions of the organ to make it less vulnerable to lightening. The church, in turn, is doing some other things to protect the building, so we’re pleased,” Dodrill said. “We hope the organ will be playing 50 years from now.”

The MIPC and Pipe Organ Foundation funded most of Dodrill’s mission, yet he had help from others. In an altruistic gesture, the Syndyne Corporation donated the necessary electronic parts at no cost.

Blessed Seelos has already spent more than $10,000 in basic electric repairs to the church, most of which is being covered by insurance.

“They’re taking one thing at a time,” Dodrill said.

The number of disasters to strike Blessed Seelos is so astonishing, the church has drawn national attention.

Just last week, KCTS-TV Channel 9 ran a documentary based on Blessed Seelos and its struggle against wind, flood and fire. Seattle filmmakers Rustin Thompson and Ann Hedreen directed the documentary, “The Church on Dauphine Street,” 60 minutes of which aired on KCTS on Aug. 29.

Although the film highlights efforts by Islanders to help restore Blessed Seelos after the Hurricane Katrina disaster, it did not include the newly remodeled Moller organ — nor its tragic bout with lightning in June — since the filming was completed before May.

Yet the members of Blessed Seelos and the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church already know the documentary’s postscript. They were the ones writing it.

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