Historic pipe organ at Our Lady of Lourdes Church being refurbished
Organ installed in 1941 being cleaned and restored piece by piece
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Wicks Organ Company of Highland, Ill. supplied Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Little Falls with a brand new Opus 2312 two-manual, nine-rank pipe organ in 1941, at a cost of $4,100.
Following the receipt of a payment of $410, a bill of lading dated May 12, 1941 shows that the organ was shipped via the Pennsylvania Railroad Company.
An e-mail message from the Wicks Organ Company to Gene Retka of Little Falls shows that to replace this organ with an identical model would cost $450,000.
Work on the organ began in January after Thor Lindquist happened upon Michael Retka, son of Gene and Janet Retka and now a recent graduate of Little Falls Community High School, playing the organ one afternoon.
“The organ had been idle about eight years, and it was a surprise to hear Michael playing,” Lindquist said.
Shortly after that, Retka came to practice the organ and found Lindquist in the choir loft with organ pipes sitting all around.
After cleaning and repair work started, Lindquist called Michael Christian, of Michael G. Christian Organ Company in Roscoe, for advice. Christian has worked on organs for 37 years.
“Organ builders and maintainers are sort of like a cult — unless a person is in the business, they won’t be allowed in the pipe chamber,” Lindquist said. “For him to tutor us and show us what to do is a treasure.”
Christian came to Little Falls to look at the organ. He took home the tremolo (the part of the organ that causes the sound to waver) to restore in his workshop.
“He cut the leather faces for most of the valves, which are one-half to seven-eighths of an inch wide,” said Lindquist.
Christian sent several e-mails giving step-by-step instructions for each part of the process. He gave an estimated cost of $10,000 for the refurbishment, which included materials and his labor.
Lindquist and Retka have removed all the pipes on the west side of the organ, vacuuming and/or brushing them as necessary. Then each was washed and wiped with a towel. The wood pipes were sanded and shellacked.
When the pipes are out, the board that keeps them standing up is removed and cleaned. Then the four toe boards, where the pipes rest, are removed and cleaned. There are more than 300 pipes on just one side of the organ.
Lindquist and Retka have been helped by Don Maslowski, who has done wiring at the church for a number of years. Maslowski built them a lighted work bench which has proved to be indispensable. He has also helped with the rewiring.
Although Lindquist did not start keeping track of hours donated until March, since then the tally shows that together, the three men have averaged 35 – 40 hours of work each week.
Each valve has to be rewired and resoldered. All the wiring from the valves to the organ console will be replaced.
Lindquist found while doing research online, that until the telephone exchange was invented in about the late 1890s, the most involved, complex system of wiring apparatus invented by man was the pipe organ.
The west side of the organ, the great division (the main division, played with the main keyboard), has four toe boards with 61 – 72 valves each. So far, 294 valves have been rewired and 276 have been refaced with new leather facings.
The shutters, which face the church and are used to adjust volume, were also removed and cleaned.
“There is some electrical work yet to do on that side, and the new red grill cloth to be installed, but that side is nearly done,” said Retka.
Our Lady of Lourdes Church had suffered some water damage to the steeples which was costly to repair, so restoring the organ was not at first very high on the to-do list.
But one Sunday morning in April, Retka filled in at 8:30 a.m. for the usual organist. “It was a kind of teaser,” he said. “And it was using only one side of the organ, since the other was torn apart.”
Retka has been playing the organ for only months, while having played piano for years. “It’s very different playing the organ, but with practice it’s not that hard,” he said. “The really challenging part is managing the pedal board.”
“Some people have come out in strong support of the project,” said Retka. “Elderly ladies came to me with tears in their eyes because they had thought they would never hear the organ again.”
Retka spoke at Mass on April 22, telling about the organ project and inviting people to a Belgian waffle breakfast fundraiser that would be held the next Sunday.
“We gave tours after Mass to show people the work that was being done,” he said.
The breakfast fundraiser April 29 raised more than $1,000, and Michael Christian attended.
“Several supporters have donated since then, some of them more than $1,000 each,” Retka said.
Rolls of telephone wire have been purchased online for reduced prices. “We are under budget now and will finish under budget,” he said.
Christian’s work tuning the pipes was not included in the estimate, and is being charged on a consulting basis.
A new “Adopt-a-Pipe” program has been established for people to donate toward the restoration. To adopt a one-inch pipe would be $1; to adopt a one-to-two-inch pipe is $10. Two to three-inch pipes are $25, three to four-inch pipes are $50, four to five-inch pipes are $100, five to six-inch pipes are $500 and six-inch and above are $1,000 or more.
Christian is donating an old pipe which will be painted red like a thermometer and displayed at Our Lady of Lourdes to show the progress of the campaign.
Work on the organ is winding down for the summer. Lindquist, who with his wife runs Dairy Treat, has other obligations.
“I’ve really had a good time,” said Lindquist. “But now we’re taking a break for summer and other activities.”
Work on the organ will resume in the fall, when Lindquist and Retka will start with the swell division of pipes (which is operated by the second keyboard on the console), on the east side.
“That’s different from the great division, and we’ll have to learn how to do that one all over again,” they agreed.
For more information, contact Our Lady of Lourdes Church parish office at (320) 632-8243.