A Brief History of how this Organ came to be

On Monday, May 15, 1995, at 10:56 p.m., a fax from Nelson Barden (president, Nelson Barden & Associates, restorer in residence, Boston University) arrived in the music office at the Church of the Transfiguration. This was not just another fax. This document was in response to Nelson’s first visit to the Community of Jesus to meet with the superior, Mother Betty Pugsley, during which they discussed the vision, need, scope, and reason for an organ of incredible depth, proportion, beauty, and scale that would support the worship at the Community of Jesus and its world-renowned music outreach.

Nelson realized instantly what she was saying, and both agreed that “above all other considerations, this organ must uncompromisingly spring from its spiritual and artistic vision until that vision becomes reality.”

To that end, the organ’s specification, geographic layout, and overall design were inspired and motivated by the ministry and mission of Gloriæ Dei Cantores (the resident professional choir at the Community of Jesus) as well as the community’s enthusiastic hymn singing. Gloriæ Dei Cantores performs repertoire of more than 30 nationalities, from Gregorian chant to music of the present day—a challenge for any organ to support, given the number of genres this includes.

Before meeting Nelson, we had committed to the restoration of an E.M. Skinner organ for the Church of the Transfiguration, knowing its innate beauty and flexibility. In fact, we had already purchased, and had in storage, Skinner No. 762 from the Munn Avenue Presbyterian Church in East Orange, New Jersey. We soon realized, however, that this instrument would not be enough on its own and, instead, would need to become the basis for something far larger and with greater impact. In order to fulfill his vision and charge to unite the organ with the basilica form of the church, Nelson said, “surround sound”.

For this installation, I suggest rotating the traditional east-west organ placement 90 degrees to north-south and stretching the instrument completely down the nave in balconies over both side aisles. The divisions would start near the chancel (above the choir seating) with the Swell and Choir on opposite sides. These would be followed by an exposed Great and an enclosed Great (including some Pedal) to broaden the tone and bring it down the nave. Next would be matching north and south Solo divisions, followed by North and South Orchestral. These paired divisions would contain similar but distinct voices. These four matched divisions would form the “moving melody” section. Near the west end would be Bombarde/Antiphonal opposite the Echo. The shades of these divisions would not open directly toward the congregation but project the sound toward the back wall. This would modulate the heavy hitters in the Bombarde and allow the Echo to do a tonal “disappearing act.” The directional and surround effects achieved by computer control of stops and shades would lift the instrument beyond state-of-the-art into a unique realm. Moving melody could range freely over the building from left to right and front to back. A single pianissimo chord from the chancel could grow into a mighty wave of sound, roll down the entire length of the nave, cascade into the Echo and disappear.

Over the course of many years, there ensued hundreds of discussions about the many specifics needed to arrive at such a conclusion. (The specification alone has been through more than 150 revisions.) Only two weeks after the first fax came the next “prophetic” fax that would soon reveal the platform upon which we would collaborate for more than two and a half decades.

In addition to the primary precept of always maintaining the spiritual and artistic vision, two other significant points were developed from this second exchange:

  • Encourage apprentice-interested Community of Jesus members into the organbuilding field to act as good stewards in both the construction and future care of this instrument.
  • Let the project take the time required for the organ to “teach and tell us” how it should grow and be transformed through varied experiences.

Upon mutually enthusiastic agreement, we reviewed the concepts set forth in the May 15 document, in which Nelson said the organ should be

  1. World-class and unique
  2. Ideally suited to your purposes
  3. A tangible expression of Community of Jesus spiritual principles
  4. Beautiful and musical, with instantly recognizable tone
  5. Designed for posterity; built to last forever
  6. Able to perform 19th-century music authentically and 18th-century Bach convincingly
  7. Capable of eliciting profound emotions
  8. Designed for HDCD recordings (!)
  9. Focused on future developments, not current technology
  10. A “trendsetter”

These discussion points quickly converted into

  1. Adopting the vision
  2. Making the commitment to move forward
  3. Incorporating the organ space into the church design
  4. Refining the vision, shaping it to our precise needs
  5. Defining the mechanical system of the organ
  6. Developing a plan of action and a realistic budget
  7. Locating a shop and storage space
  8. Beginning to implement the plan of action
  9. Training part-time workers and developing their expertise
  10. Acquiring more component parts to restore
  11. Organizing and commencing restoration work
  12. Setting up a division and playing it for inspiration

Fast-forward to the summer of 2021, and we look back to see that Nelson’s original division layout, with some changes in nomenclature, has come true.

Disposition:

APSE
CHOIR SWELL
NORTH GREAT (AND PEDAL) SOUTH GREAT (AND PEDAL)
SOLO (AND PEDAL) STRING (AND PEDAL)
ANTIPHONAL/PROCESSIONAL ECHO
WEST END

We were extremely fortunate to find instruments available for purchase that, together, created a “joyful musical genesis.” Below is a partial list of the Skinner organs whose components constitute this “new” instrument:

No. 140 Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio
No. 195 Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.
No. 310 Plymouth Church, Shaker Heights, Ohio
No. 473 Florida State University, Tallahassee, Fla.
No. 540 St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Williamsport, Pa.
No. 541 First Congregational Church, St. Petersburg, Fla.
No. 655 St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Rochester, N.Y.
No. 656 Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.
No. 762 Munn Avenue Presbyterian Church, East Orange, N.J.
No. 855 Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Pittsburgh, Pa.
No. 858 Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla.
No. 934 St. Joseph’s College, Adrian, Mich.
No. 991 Broadway Tabernacle, New York, N.Y.
No. 1242 First Baptist Church, Abilene, Tex.

Nelson and the Community of Jesus have maintained an organbuilding apprenticeship program through these many years, having trained one of our members to journeyman status (during the course of 20 years), and four others in multiyear work-training situations. During this time, the construction and installation truly followed Nelson’s initial concept—division by division. This is what allowed the organ to “teach” us. Below are some other significant dates in the history of this organ:

June 2000 Dedication of the Church of the Transfiguration (North Great, Swell, and Tuba Mirabilis)

June 2003 Great Artist series begins with AGO Regions I and II convention featuring Thomas

Murray (Choir division)

June 2005 Fifth anniversary of the Church of the Transfiguration (Antiphonal/Processional divisions)

June 2010 Tenth anniversary of the Church of the Transfiguration (Echo division and arrival of the west-end console for recitals by Gerre and and Judith Hancock and Thomas Murray)

Summer 2018 32′ Bombarde installed on south side

Summer 2019 Removal of 1929 console and return of the rewired west-end console serving as temporary main console

February 2020 Arrival of the permanent console

Our new console was designed, constructed, and installed by Richard Houghten and Joseph Zamberlan. From 2000 to 2020, we had used the original E.M. Skinner console from No. 762, which, by 2020, we had long outgrown. We designed the new console to be as comfortable as a Skinner, with everything clearly identified and within reach. Special features include shade expression thumb slides underneath the bottom three keyboards, an expression matrix so that any of the divisions can be assigned to a specific swell pedal (the entire organ is under expression), and ivory keyboards (with E.M. Skinner’s “tracker touch”) from the No. 762 console. Some unusual couplers such as Pedal to Manual are included.

Perhaps the most moving realizations are the visionary outlooks of how this organ would affect people as they listened and experienced it in the setting of the Church of the Transfiguration. In concluding his initial thoughts to us in May 1995, Nelson wrote this to encourage us to take this on:

The Ultimate Goal

Every church is an expression of the builders, and so is every organ. When this instrument is finished, Community members will feel they are a part of the organ, and the organ is part of them. It will give voice to their aspirations and resonate with deep-seated meaning.

Building a magnificent instrument is hard work, sometimes tedious and always prolonged. Nonprofessionals may become discouraged, just as organbuilders are when the job drags on. The difference is that organbuilders hold a vision that gives them boundless energy and faith. They know the end result and imagine how it sounds.

Community members will understand everything when their labor comes to life and the organ starts to play. Lumber and leather, wire and wind—if a pipe organ can sing with the angels, isn’t there hope for us all?

The list of people to thank is simply endless at this point, but here are names of those without whom this organ would not exist.

John Ananda
Jonathan Ambrosino
Nelson Barden
Chris Broome
† Dave Broome
† David Craighead
James Hudson Crissman
William Czelusniak
† Gerre Hancock
Richard Houghten
Thomas Murray
Sean O’Donnell
Duane Prill
Mother Betty Pugsley
Joseph Rotella
Peter Rudewicz
Joseph Sloan
Joseph Zamberlan

† deceased

A complete specification as well as other Skinner instrument numbers are available at CommunityofJesus.org.

— Nelson Barden and Jim Jordan

If we all embrace a new vision, special guidance and support will surely come.
–NELSON BARDEN