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Free concert to highlight St. Joseph organ renovation

It takes climbing 69 steps to reach the Jardine and Son Tracker organ in the choir loft inside St. Joseph Church, 1802 Tulane Ave. But, it’s steps that Daughters of Charity nuns, students and various organists have climbed over the years to enhance the Mass experience for attendees.
Former St. Joseph Elementary School students Marcia Curole and Bill Habeney, current parishioners at the church, mounted an effort to restore and save the organ. They have fond memories of their days at St. Joseph and didn’t want to see the organ discarded.

A free concert to highlight the organ’s sound is scheduled Aug. 2 at 3 p.m., with doors opening at 2:30 p.m. Carol Britt of Lafayette, a member of the Organ Historical Society’s New Orleans chapter, will be the concert organist. Her husband, Bennett Britt, is current society president.

Important part of history
Curole and Habeney said the organ is considered a historical organ, built in 1875 in New York. It can be traced back in Habeney’s family to the late 1890s.

“That’s my roots,” Habeney said. “My family is from Tulane Avenue (across from Dixie Brewery). My grandfather Dan Collins served the first Mass in 1892 when the church opened. It’s in our family’s and St. Joseph history books. He was 10 years old.”

Habeney said his mother, Florence Collins, went to school there, and he and his four siblings did as well; his sisters completed the all-girls’ St. Joseph high school in the parish.

“When we were kids, I remember when the Daughters of Charity used to go up there and play it,” Habeney said. “A blower blows air into the bellows (air reservoir) that provides air for the notes when you hit them. In the old days when my mom went there, you had to pump it. While the nuns played it, the girls would pump it. In the early 1930s, they brought in an electric blower so it.”

Habeney said he knows a few songs on the organ and would play it occasionally over the years.

While it wasn’t in the best of shape long before Hurricane Katrina hit, water from the storm leaked into the organ’s bellows from the roof, Curole said, and made it inoperable.

Curole thought if the organ wasn’t repaired while people still remembered it, it could be lost forever.

So, organ restorer Roy Redman of Fort Worth, Texas, was hired to bring the organ back to life. He has installed the organ at the new St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie and fixed St. Mary’s organ, Curole said, and mentioned that there were only about 100 Jardine and Son Tracker organs left in America.

To raise the several thousand dollars that was needed for the renovation, Habeney and Curole held sales of artist and photographer Habeney’s art and worked with members of the national Organ Historical Society New Orleans chapter to help  supervise and partially pay for the renovation, as well as house Redman when he was in town working on the organ.

“It was repaired on site in the heat and in the dark,” Curole said.

Rachelen Lien, founding president of the Organ Historical Society New Orleans chapter in 1983, said the society is dedicated to the preservation of pipe organs. She encouraged St. Joseph organ’s restoration, saying that the society raised $1,420 from its 30 or so members nationwide.

“I was very interested in seeing it play again because our chapter had renovated it once before in 1988, and it had fallen into disrepair,” Lien said. “The hurricane caused further damage.”

Lien said a volunteer crew of approximately 15 worked every day for over a week under the direction of Redman and his assistant Jake Norris. They removed and repaired the organ’s wind chests, cleaned the organ (its ivory keys, pedals), re-leathered the tracker part of the wood to make the keys work, and did other repairs to the pipes.

“We want people to know we do these sorts of things because there might be other organs in New Orleans in need of repairs,” Lien said.

Lien and Habeney said the organ – a 12-by-12-foot instrument – is unique in that it has a star of David on the case. Its origin is not clear, though Habeney said the rumor is that it could have first been built for a Jewish synagogue.

“It’s huge and it sounds great,” Habeney said. A trial run of the organ after 10 a.m. Mass on June 7 was well received.

“Musically, it’s in great shape,” Vincentian Father Tom Stehlik, St. Joseph pastor, said. The parish contributed to the restoration and had the choir loft rewired so light fixtures on the organ and blower would work. “It’s another free gift to the world from St. Joseph.”

He and others hope it will be used for weddings.

“I think as more people find out it’s repaired, more people will use it for weddings and special events,” Habeney said.

“Being able to play this historical organ is like playing a Stradivarius,” she said. “Not every church has a historical organ.”

The next phase of the organ’s restoration is raising money to gild its pipes.    

“Right now, it kind of blends (with the walls), “ Curole said.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarion

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