St. Michael’s Cathedral's new Casavant organ boasts 4,143 pipes. Photo by Michael Swan

New organ the product of lofty ambition

By  Marlena Loughheed, Catholic Register Special
  • September 22, 2016

It’s a tale that everyone who has done a home renovation can understand. As the restoration of St. Michael’s Cathedral grew from a simple bathroom installation to a full-scale restoration, one common phrase was often repeated: “the building will tell us what it needs.”

When the restoration began in 2011, no one could have imagined the story the historic building was waiting to tell. As each layer was removed, it revealed needs too serious to ignore. 

Two floors above those new bathrooms, the church’s choir loft had been deemed unsafe and closed for more than 20 years. There was a period when a technician would come in on Fridays to get the 130-year-old Warren organ in working condition for the weekend. Eventually these weekly repairs couldn’t be sustained and the instrument ceased to fill the cathedral with its song.

In this and many other ways, the building had spoken loud and clear and Marc Ferguson, head of construction at the restoration project, was listening and ready to respond. His team from Buttcon tore down the defunct choir loft. Its replacement is an extended concrete and steel-enforced structure that houses a new custom-built Casavant Opus 3907 organ and adds about 300 seats for parishioners. Removal of the old organ also revealed the beautiful west window, which had been covered by the old instrument for decades. 

Perhaps its most subtle yet significant feature is the balcony’s suspended extension over the main entrance. This adds to the experience of entering the cathedral in darkness and emerging from beneath the overhang into magnificent light. Immediately the eye is drawn upward and with it, the soul. 

Installing the new balcony involved reinforcing the 150-year-old main floor of the cathedral with temporary support columns in the basement and driving a crane through the front doors. For Ferguson, it was an understandably terrifying moment. Planning pays off and the crane was in and out without incident. 

When it came to building the new organ to further lift souls to God on the notes of sacred music, the cathedral enlisted the craftsmanship of Casavant Frères, a Canadian company based in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., that is almost as old as St. Michael’s Cathedral. Cathedral staff and Casavant had been in discussions for decades about building a new organ, but it was only when the balcony was included in the plans that this long-time dream became a reality. 

The Casavant Opus 3907 boasts 4,143 pipes, ranging in size from a fraction of an inch to 32 feet. It includes 56 “stops,” each of which provide a unique sound and can be used individually or combined to create dynamic voicings. Unlike the old mechanical organ, the Opus 3907 is an electric slider, meaning the valves in the pipes are opened by magnets triggered by the keyboard, rather than by direct link to the keyboard. 

The instrument was precisely designed for St. Michael’s Cathedral, taking into account acoustics, aesthetics and placement of the pipes to keep the west window clear. Jacquelin Rochette, Casavant’s artistic director, worked closely with cathedral organist William O’Meara and rector Fr. Michael Busch to create an instrument that will accompany St. Michael’s Choir School and other ensembles in worship for years to come. In fact, the organ is so important, it has its own blessing rite in the Roman Ritual.

“The organ is the very best way to lead a congregation. It can be powerful and authoritative in a way no other instrument can,” said Fr. Busch. “The pursuit of beauty and excellence are part of our worship, heritage and tradition. In this new organ we have provided the very best for God’s house.”

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