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MI Presbyterian Church builds pipe organ for Catholic parish in New Orleans
Mercer Island Reporter
The Mercer Island Presbyterian Church has taken on a project of monumental scale. Under the direction of Island craftsman Carl Dodrill, 37 volunteers are building a majestic pipe organ from scratch for the Blessed Seelos Catholic Church in New Orleans.
The European-inspired Moller organ, which weighs three tons and includes 816 pipes, will replace the 1951 model that was destroyed when a fire gutted the church sanctuary in 2003. This week, a handful of MIPC members are driving the organ — disassembled and meticulously packed into hundreds of bubble-wrapped bundles — 2,705 miles to New Orleans, where they will personally rebuild the instrument for the parishioners of Blessed Seelos. This task is the final step in a project as extraordinary as the organ itself.
Dodrill and his wife, Halie, share a passion for the pipe organ. Just take one look at their living room, custom built from floor to ceiling with wooden and metal “surround sound” pipes, and their love of the centuries-old instrument becomes clear. While one specializes in playing the organ, the other specializes in building it.
As president of the Pipe Organ Foundation, a nonprofit charity based out of the Dodrill’s home on West Mercer Way, Carl Dodrill devotes most of his free time to the instrument’s mechanics and assembly. Even Halie Dodrill, a skillful musician, has become somewhat of an aficionado on the organ’s inner workings. Yet both are humble about their talents.
“I’m knowledgeable enough to know that I don’t know very much [about the organ], so I’ve surrounded myself with people who are very knowledgeable,” Carl Dodrill said.
One such person is pipe organ artisan Paul Fritts. Dodrill met Fritts, who runs a workshop in Tacoma, 18 years ago as an aspiring apprentice. Since then, the Islander has cultivated his passion for crafting organs under Fritts’ guidance and now shares this knowledge with fellow foundation members.
Fred Beck, one of the Pipe Organ Foundation’s 37 volunteers, has learned much over the past 17 months. He has learned pneumatic pipe technology, tips in carpentry and how to adjust an organ’s electrical switch stack. After a career working with computers for Boeing, the retiree enjoys using his technical skills on a more archaic instrument. Pipe organ tinkering is now part of Beck’s weekends.
“It’s a joy to work with people so willing to share, learn and grow,” Beck said of the Pipe Organ Foundation. “They are very talented and capable people. It’s a real learning experience.”
And it is also a lot of work.
In total, the group of volunteers has spent 3,700 hours on the Blessed Seelos project. Much of this time has been devoted to stacks and stacks of paperwork.
The planning required to assemble, disassemble and reassemble a musical puzzle of 800-plus pieces is mind boggling. But with three completed organs under its belt, the foundation’s fourth “opus” — as each crafted organ is called — serves as an example of the group’s professionalism.
Although the majority of foundation members are volunteers, the man orchestrating the project is local organ builder Jim Stetner.
Like his counterpart in Tacoma, Stetner has devoted much of his life to crafting, restoring and assembling classical pipe organs.
In addition to running his Seattle-based company, Puget Sound Pipe Organs, the artisan spends countless hours soldering away at pipes for the foundation. Without his professional instruction, the charity group would not be in business.
The Blessed Seelos organ, in particular, required Stetner’s esoteric knowledge of the venerable instrument. Because 40 percent of the parishioners at Blessed Seelos are hearing impaired or deaf, the organ had to be custom designed so that its music could be felt as well as heard.
“What we’ve tried to do is produce a large sonic vibration strong enough to be felt,” Stetner said. “It’s all about pitch stops. The wider the mouth on a pipe, the more you get out of it.”
Dodrill is honored that the foundation can deliver the gift of music to those who struggle to hear.
“The [parishioners] rely on this organ as part of their expression of faith,” Dodrill said.
In addition to helping the community, the custom made organ also benefits the environment.
A composite of pre-existing organs, the musical instrument is almost entirely “green.” Its consul, pedals, all 816 pipes and even the springs, screws and gaskets are recycled from abandoned organs of the past.
“The whole project is green. Nothing is newer than 75 years old, except for the electrical board. We use old, recycled things,” Dodrill said, pointing out that the consul is a 1928 Moller piece donated by the Blights Funeral Home. “It takes work and TLC.”
Dodrill’s home was specially designed to accommodate his charitable pipe organ business. Before taking on this endeavor, the Islander had a three-story, light industry workshop specially built for the storage, construction and assembly of a full-size organ.
The top floor — where the incomplete Blessed Seelos organ resided for more than a year — has a large trap door in the floor through which each piece of the organ can be lowered by a chain dangling from a sturdy beam in the ceiling. The room was built to hold more than five tons of equipment. Its ceilings are high enough to accommodate the instrument’s soaring pipes.
Last Monday, foundation volunteers carefully lowered the organ — piece by piece — into the ground level garage where it was then packed away in a moving truck. The vehicle took off for Louisiana the following day.
The 15 volunteers accompanying the giant parcel to New Orleans will have the honor of rebuilding the pipe organ in the historic church that, only a few years ago, had lost so much.
“They really were hit with a triple whammy,” Dodrill said, referring to three successive disasters that nearly ruined the Blessed Seelos Church. “On top of the fire in 2003, while they were still trying to settle with the insurance, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the parish hall, and then came Hurricane Rita.”
In 2006, the Island church, along with the Madrona Presbyterian Church, Seattle Community Church and University Presbyterian Church, sent down a series of volunteers to completely rebuild the parish hall, which seats up to 500 people.
The new pipe organ is the final gift that the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church is bestowing to Blessed Seelos.
This coming week, the Catholic church will be whole again. And what better way to celebrate than with the glorious sound of a pipe organ.
The namesake of the New Orleans Church, Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, was born in Germany in 1819. A Redemptorist priest, he came to the United States in 1843. In 1867, he died of yellow fever in New Orleans, having contracted the disease while caring for the sick.
For more information on the Pipe Organ Foundation and the Blessed Seelos project, visit www.pipeorganfoundation.org.