by Michael Caruso
It’s been said that one person’s loss is another’s gain. If so, the same is true when it comes to pipe organs and the churches in which they can be found.
In April of 2007, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Germantown was closed due to declining membership and rising maintenance costs. Quintessentially Victorian in style, looking as though it had been extracted from one of the Barchester novels of the 19th century master Anthony Trollope, the church was designed by George W. Hewitt and Frank Furness, with a subsequent addition by Theophilus Parsons Chandler Jr. Considered a jewel in Philadelphia’s architectural crown, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Among its treasures are two 1909 stained glass windows executed by muralist Violet Oakley, a former student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The pair of windows delineate Jesus’ New Testament parable of the wise and foolish virgins. In addition to the Oakley windows, there are two Tiffany windows of comparable artistic stature.
Yet another gem in St. Peter’s Church was its 1923 E.M. Skinner pipe organ. Skinner was among the most important organ builders in America, designing and building pipe organs for the chapel at Girard College in North Philadelphia, the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem Heights, New York, the National Episcopal Cathedral of SS. Peter & Paul in Washington, D.C., the Cleveland Public Auditorium and the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh.
The organ at St. Peter’s Church in Germantown is listed as Opus 407, meaning that it’s the 407th instrument designed and built by E.M. Skinner. It boasts 32 ranks or types of pipes, 30 stops or registrations, three manuals (“great,” “swell” and “choir” keyboards), and pedal board, for a total of 2,098 pipes. It’s a relatively small pipe organ, yet it was considered a sterling example of Skinner’s romantic/symphonic style of instrument design.
Rather than allow the pipes to deteriorate as a result of the church’s closing, the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania centered in Philadelphia contacted Father Mark Horack, S.J., the pastor of Old St. Joseph’s Church in Society Hill. “Old St. Joe’s,” as it is affectionately known, is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Philadelphia, founded by Jesuit Fathers in 1733. The church is a National Shrine of Religious Freedom because it was, at one time, the only site where the Catholic Latin Mass could be publicly celebrated in all of the British Empire (obviously when Pennsylvania was still a British colony)..
The Episcopal Diocese informed Father Horack that the organ would not be dismantled and sold off in pieces if Old St. Joseph’s would agree to move, refurbish and use it for religious services. Father Horack, who is now the pastor of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown, D.C., accepted the free gift. The project was continued and brought to a successful conclusion through the efforts of Father Horack’s successor at Old St. Joseph’s, Father Daniel Ruff, S.J., and Norman Gouin, the parish’s director of music. The first stage of the organ’s restoration was overseen by C.M. Walsh Pipe Organs in Collingdale; the project was completed by Emery Brothers of Allentown.
Old St. Joseph’s Church will bless and dedicate the newly restored pipe organ, which once served the Germantown community for 84 years, with a recital Sunday, Sept. 9, at 3 p.m. Andrew Senn, the organist and music director of the First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia, 21st and Walnut Streets, will be the soloist in a program that includes his own transcription of Rossini’s Overture to “Il Turco in Italia,” J.S. Bach’s Prelude & Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552, Percy Whitlock’s Folk Tune and Andante Tranquilo from “Five Short Pieces,” Franck’s “Chorale No. 1 in E major” and “Les Cloches de Hinckley” by Vierne. Senn is an alumnus of Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music and has been the organist & music director at First Presbyterian since 2006. Previously, he was organist and music director at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown.
Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is located at 321 Willings Alley (near the intersection of 4th and Walnut Streets) in Society Hill. For more information, call 215-923-1733.