The Rebirth of an Organ

Plymouth Covenant Church Lands Musical Prize

by Robert Elde

The Plymouth Covenant Church, Plymouth, Minnesota, was filled on Sunday evening, November 18, with congregational members and an assortment of other friends of the pipes. The occasion was the dedicatory concert of an organ new to the parish. The organ itself, however, was not new. It was built in St. Louis in 1916, and with rich tones it musically guided the congregation of the Lutheran Church of Sundberg, Minnesota through life's joys and sorrows for more than half a century. Six members of the Sundberg parish, including the organist, were present for the "rededication" of their instrument.

The rescue and rebuilding of this grand organ is a story of the heart. In 1983, organ afficionados in the upper midwest learned that this organ was available as a result of the merger of two congregations in Sundberg.

Michael Barone, Music Director for Minnesota Public Radio and host of the nationally broadcast program "Pipe Dreams," urged Bruce Carlson (Executive Director, The Schubert Club; Poetry Editor, Pietisten) to expand the scope of his Schubert Club Musical Instrument Museum to include a small pipe organ representative of the turn of the century in the rural midwest. Carlson agreed. Subsequently, on behalf of the Schubert Club Museum, he submitted the highest bid at the auction. One of the under-bidders was George Osland, an orthopedic surgeon from Plymouth, Minnesota.

The organ was dismantled, crated, and stored in the Schubert Club's facilities while renovation of appropriate exhibition space was explored. When the space never materialized, Carlson contacted Osland to determine if his interest in the Sundberg organ continued.

Dr. Osland was still interested, and for several reasons. First, his family had roots in the Sundberg area. Second, his own parish (Plymouth Covenant Church) was a relatively new church and lacked an adequate organ. Third, he had been drawn to organ music and restoration by listening to "Pipe Dreams."

With the aid of his resources, the organ was procured, and for the period of more than a year it was rebuilt. Rebuilding was directed by Gordon Schultz and aided by many, but prominently by Tom Pretzel who translated his street-rod building skills into organ restoration. Fuel for the workers, in the form of Swedish pastries and coffee, was provided by Gunny Carlson (mother of Pietisten contributing editor Tommy Carlson).

The rebuilt organ was impressively adorned on the evening of the dedicatory concert. From its warmly aged oak cabinet an array of pipes with floral gilding pointed toward the heavens. built with eight stops and ranks; during the rebuilding it was increased to nine stops with eleven ranks.

Organist, choirmaster, and conductor Philip Brunelle (Plymouth Congregational Church, Minneapolis) explored the sonic qualities of the reborn organ with music composed near the time of the original building of the organ. Brunelle also accompanied the congregation's singing of several hymns.

Michael Barone provided a warm and knowledgeable account of the history of this organ, its procurement, and rebuilding. In a rousing accompaniment to the singing of "O Zion, Haste," with the aid of several men from the audience, Mr. Barone demonstrated the outstanding quality of the music which could be produced by the hand-pumped bellows. Electrical failure had lost its sting!

The joy of the dedicatory concert was then transferred to fellowship hall where those gathered enjoyed Gunny Carlson's pastries and coffee.

A recording of the concert will be broadcast nationally on "Pipe Dreams." Check the program listing for your local Public Radio station or write (including a self-addressed, stamped envelope) to Pipe Dreams, 45 East Seventh Street, St. Paul, MN 55101.

Hats off to George Osland and the Plymouth Covenant Church for landing this distinguished king of instruments.

See all articles by Robert Elde