Despite popularity of praise bands, some area churches still investing in pipe organs

Posted at 12:00 PM, Sep 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-14 16:55:37-04

CINCINNATI -- If this doesn’t sum up the current state of organ music in church worship services, nothing does: An established church in Anderson Township is having a replacement organ built, in part using pipes donated from an organ that a new congregation in Covington had removed from an old church in order to make room for their band.

For centuries, the majestic sounds of the pipe organ filled Christian church services worldwide. In older, mainline Christian churches, the organ’s still a vital part of the worship service.

But in newer churches, where rock ’n’ roll music is played, the drum kit and guitar have taken its place.

That’s especially true of churches that are not part of older denominations like the Episcopal church, said John Deaver, who has served 36 years as music director at Trinity Episcopal Church in Covington.

Deaver plays with pride the organ Trinity installed in 1994, which he said does a great job helping him lead the choir and congregation in singing.

It makes him sad, he said, when he hears of new congregations moving into old churches and removing a pipe organ, or not replacing one.

It happened a few years ago at the former Norwood Presbyterian Church, where New City Presbyterian Church removed the organ’s pipes and inner workings, leaving only the console, which now houses the sound mixing board.

“Even piano manufacturers are starting to feel the pinch,” said Mike Rathke, owner of Indianapolis-area organ builders M. P. Rathke Inc. “You can have a very respectable praise band without a keyboard.”

Rathke, who has been building organs for 30 years, has never installed an organ in a church under construction. In the 1950s and '60s, however, organs would have been built for new churches left and right, he said.

Almost half the work he does now is restoration of historic instruments. His most recent project was building a replacement organ for Newtown United Methodist Church in Anderson Township, which is scheduled to be dedicated with a recital Sept. 25.

It’s one of at least four new organs recently installed or set to be installed in local churches, the others being in Christ Church Cathedral Downtown and St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Terrace Park.

The new organ is a big project for a small congregation like Newtown, which has only 106 members and has existed for more than 200 years, said music director Kristy Swift.

But the congregation felt that one way to ensure weekly worship services for the next 100 or so years would be to buy an organ that would last that long, she said.

In building the organ, Rothke used pipes recycled from a defunct organ at a former African Methodist Episcopal Church in Covington. The Guatemalan Pentecostal congregation that was using the building needed more room for its praise band, he said.

Christ Church Cathedral has commissioned two replacement organs, one to be installed in the sanctuary in 2018-19, and one for its chapel, to be installed this year. The church is widely known for its music programs, including its weekly Music Live at Lunch concerts.

For St. Thomas Episcopal, replacing its electronic organ with a mechanical-action organ was as much an economic decision as an aesthetic one, director of music Carlton Monroe said.

After much research, the church determined that paying $826,000 for the mechanical-action organ, which requires less maintenance, was cheaper over the long-run, he said. It’s scheduled to be installed in 2019.

Junking the old organ in favor of a praise band was not an option.

“That’s not who we are as a church,” he said. “The Episcopal church has one of the more beautiful and long-lasting musical traditions … We believe in being timeless as opposed to timely.”

That’s also true of Covenant-First Presbyterian Church Downtown, which is in its second year of providing staff internships for one voice, one music and one organ student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.

It’s a way to reach out to conservatory students, as well as ensure the church hears good music, said Pastor Russell Smith.

The church is raising money to create a $120,000 endowment that would pay for one such internship every year in perpetuity, he said.

“It’s a very countercultural move in a lot of ways,” he said. “But the way I look at it is that there will always be an audience who loves high-quality, traditional, classical music. We want to be the people who provide that.”

His church was one of several local churches that hosted organ recitals in July during Pipe Organ Encounters, a national program for advanced high school organists, sponsored locally by the Cincinnati Chapter of the American Guild of Organists.

One of the performers was Michael Unger, assistant professor of organ and harpsichord at the conservatory. Seeing the talent shown by the high school students gave him a lot of hope for the future of organ music.

There are six organ students at the conservatory this year, he said. In previous years, graduates have all found good jobs, many of them with churches, often as organist/choir directors.

“I’m not sounding the alarm yet,” he said. “I’m not saying that churches are getting rid of organs and getting rid of organists. I don’t hear that among organists or clergy as strongly as we (once) did.”