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St. Joseph Abbey
St. Benedict, Louisiana

Cover feature of the April 2001
issue of The American Organist

I first visited St. Joseph Abbey, located in the rural Covington, Louisiana area, in 1996. Traveling there entails flying to New Orleans, driving across the 26 mile long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, then heading another eight or ten miles north into the country to the quiet and wooded monastery grounds, which occupy 1,200 acres. The Abbey comprises a group of buildings. The monastery was built in the first decade of this century in a simple institutional style. The church was built in the 1930s in a style reminiscent of Italian Romanesque churches. St. Joseph Seminary College was built in the 1950s in a modernist style that at first glance looks very much like a Mies van der Rohe design.

On my first trip there I was fascinated by a religious life about which I knew very little. It became clear that I must learn about this life, since a successful new organ for the community would be inseparable from their way of living. During the next four years I was made to feel like a member of the family as I lived in the monastery, ate meals and worshiped with the community during my visits to plan the organ and coordinate its construction and installation with the renovation of the church. After several years of planning and renovation work, and finally in the installation of the organ, I came to realize that in my 26 years of building organs I have probably never become so involved with a group of people as I did there.

THE DESIGN TEAM

When I was chosen to build the organ for the Abbey, I joined the design team which had been assembled to plan the renovation of the church. This team consisted of Abbot Patrick Regan, Father Seán Duggan (Director of Music) and others from the Abbey, Frank Kacmarcik from St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota (liturgical consultant), and Lee Tollefson from Rafferty, Rafferty and Tollefson of Minneapolis (architect). Delores Bruch of the University of Iowa was the organ consultant, and Robert Mahoney of Boulder, Colorado served as acoustician. Other experts came into the group to advise on window replacement, restoration of paintings, revision of lighting and other aspects of the project.

Abbot Patrick organized this team into one of the most productive and interesting design efforts I have ever been involved in. Typically we would assemble for three or four days of retreat-type meetings at the Abbey, and would stay in the monastery, where we immersed ourselves in the project. Every evening we all attended the chapter meeting, where each of us reported to the whole community what we had accomplished that day. One of the really good aspects of this style of meetings was that everyone was involved and knew what was going on with every aspect of the project, not just their own particular area. As an organ builder I therefore knew what was happening with the electrical, plumbing, painting and flooring, etc., so if I foresaw that those things would impact our work, I could know exactly what was being planned and comment on it. Likewise I had the obligation to inform everyone about the organ and they could comment on my work just as I could on theirs. In other projects I am working on, architects tend to want to keep all the various people apart so that there is little interaction or knowledge of the issues between the various project specialists. No one but the architect is then fully aware of all the details of the whole project. That gives the architect complete control, but also assures that problems aren’t detected and the various aspects of the project do not integrate as well as they might.

One of the most challenging and interesting ideas guiding this project was that both Abbot Patrick and Frank Kacmarcik measured the validity of every aspect of the planning using the Rule of St. Benedict. This meant that no matter what we were talking about, be it flooring and window treatments or the organ’s tonal design or case design, there was a desire to discover the most basic and elemental essence of the thing and go no further. Therefore the design took on a simplicity and directness that allows each thing to fulfill its purpose without becoming confused by unnecessary embellishments, which do not contribute to the essential functioning of the thing itself. For me, it is interesting to see how the Benedictine philosophy from the Middle Ages seems to merge so easily with the modernist aesthetic. However, to a certain extent, both the Benedictine philosophy and the modernist aesthetic are at odds with today’s post-modern outlook. To be able to let go of all the personal or preconceived preferences and to go where the Rule leads was the goal for the project. The process and the results have been quite exciting for me.

THE RENOVATION

The renovation of the monastery church was carried out over a long period of time. The exterior was completed before I arrived on the scene. The interior renovations were carried out over a period of four years and in a couple of stages. All the 1960s changes to the building were removed. Plaster was repaired and refinished. The famous murals of Dom Gregory de Wit were professionally stabilized and restored. The old art glass windows were removed and new Reamy glass from Germany was installed. The electrical and lighting systems were replaced and new quarry tile and granite floors were installed. All the furnishings are new. With all this work the acoustic of the room was improved considerably; it now has about four seconds at most frequencies, tapering off somewhat in the bass.

THE ORGAN DESIGN

The organ design, both tonal and physical, grew out of a desire to create an instrument which meets the needs of the monastic community, an important goal since the organ is used for Mass and the office four or five times every day of the week. The first task was to identify where the organ would stand. In a large church like this, it would have been ideal to have a west end gallery organ for congregational singing and solo use, and an organ in the front with the monastic choir to accompany the daily office and the schola. Financial realities made consideration of two organs impossible. Therefore, a single organ would have to be placed where it could fulfill all the needs of the monastic community as well as the parish church functions. Because the needs of the monastic community were primary, it was decided to place the organ in the chancel end of the church.

Generally, we think that placing the organ on the central axis of a building is the best location. However, Bob Mahoney found that an organ placed on the axis in the apse would not be the best location because the apse ceiling is lower than the nave, and is separated from the nave by the crossing with its dome and transepts. Furthermore, placement in the apse would remove the instrument from the monastic choir. Rather surprisingly, Bob found that the best location for projection throughout the entire building would be in the transept.

Since the transept has balconies on both sides that project out to the piers that support the dome, an organ placed on the main floor in front of the balcony would consume most of the space for the choir on that side. Placing the entire organ in the balcony would be difficult because of insufficient height, and the organ would appear too high in the room under the great arch supporting the dome. Since the organist must be with the monastic choir, placing the organ in the balcony took on another complication as well.

After careful study of the building, I suggested a concept which I had developed for another large Catholic church in St. Louis ten years earlier, but had not built. In that design, the organ was to hang from the building and the console was to be placed on the main floor, with a tracker run connecting it to the organ case. While this plan posed some engineering problems for its application at the Abbey, we had explored this enough in the St. Louis project to have the concept fairly well developed. As a result, we had some steel inserted into the building so that the weight of the organ could be borne by the front of the balcony without causing structural failure. The blower and reservoirs sit behind the case; the Swell division and the large Pedal pipes stand on the balcony floor. The Great and Pedal divisions project over the front of the balcony. The Positive division hangs under the balcony from the central façade tower at the front and two steel rods at the back. The console is on a platform in the choir at the main floor level. The trackers come up to the Positive division and continue on to the Great, Swell and Pedal divisions in a glass tracker run. The wood frame at each side houses the cables for the electric stop action and the windline for the Positive division.

The main façade hangs below the balcony floor level, allowing it to be in a better position proportionally to the architecture than if it were located on the balcony floor. This arrangement of main case in front of balcony with Positive hanging below makes the organ appear very light, seeming to float in the room free of the architecture. The organ, though physically large, has been made to seem proportional to the room in this unconventional way.

Our major concern with this unorthodox layout was to keep the key action simple, direct and light. The Swell trackers are the longest, being 30 feet from the keyboard to the pallets in the windchest. With the careful positioning of the divisions in relationship to the console below, we could gently slope the Swell trackers back and the Positive trackers forward so that no horizontal trackers are required for the manual key action. The Pedal action does have horizontal trackers above the balcony floor level to direct the action to those windchests. Because of this direct placement and careful engineering, the key action is light and very responsive.

The tonal design is largely based upon the concept of a classical organ of two manual divisions. The musical traditions of the Benedictine order generally favor more classical organ design for accompanying chant and other service music. In addition to this, we placed a third manual division, the Swell, high up behind the main case. This division, placed in a very effective enclosure, is a decidedly “romantic” division which has harmonic flutes, oboe and bassoon and a pair of strings to broaden the organ’s color capabilities.

Perhaps the most important role for the organ in monastic life is its ability to provide pitch and support for the singing of the office four times a day. In this role the organ must have a variety of colors which are clear and distinct in pitch, and not so loud that they cover the voices that, with the building’s acoustic, create the mystical effects necessary to interpret the text of the liturgy. We took great care in planning these aspects of the organ. If it happens that the organ plays Germanic Baroque music or French Romantic music well, so much the better, but the real concern here was to create an appropriate tonality for the accompaniment of the community of men in the daily office.

One of the main goals in this project was to have a division in very close proximity to the monastic choir. The suspended location of the Positive puts this division just a few feet over the heads of the choir. Its sound is direct, but gentle and refined. The division becomes a perfect accompaniment for the choir, but also has the effect of a rückpositiv in the church. As a result, the rather unconventional installation of the organ not only enhances the architecture of the room, but solves its musical needs as well.

The instrument was used for the first time on Palm Sunday 2000 for a packed church. The organ has been used throughout last summer and fall, and with a few more weeks of voicing this past November, it is now ready for the dedication year which is planned for the year 2001. We hope that the organ becomes not only a cherished part of St. Joseph Abbey’s daily life, but also a landmark in the recently flourishing trend in the Catholic Church to commission fine new organs for their churches to lead people in liturgy and song.

—Lynn A. Dobson

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