Restoration: bringing back a pipe organ in Brooklyn

Left, the Rev. Michael A. Perry, pastor of Our Lady of Refuge, sat at the organ with Joseph A. Vitacco III, the mastermind of the restoration. Photo by Bryan Thomas for the New York Times

Here’s a great story from the In My Backyard Desk, courtesy the New York Times: 

Joseph A. Vitacco III remembers what captivated him when he was a child and his grandmother took him to Mass: not the sight of the priests in their robes, not the stained glass windows soaring beyond the arches, but the sound of the pipe organ. “It was rich, powerful and ethereal, all at the same time,” he recalled the other day. “Sort of like an orchestra.”

That sound, heard in the early 1970s, and that instrument, at Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church in Midwood, Brooklyn, shaped his life. He took organ lessons and, when he was in high school, he learned to make repairs, replacing the dried-out leather lining deep inside in the organ’s wind chest. He wrote about that in his application to the University of Notre Dame and got in, despite warnings from his guidance counselor that his chances were slim.

In his 20s, he started a record label and made compact discs of famous organists playing important instruments around the world. The public radio program “Pipedreams” broadcast a segment about him. He moved out of the city and the organ languished.

Now, at 45, he has come home again, sort of. Mr. Vitacco has masterminded the rebuilding of the instrument that started it all, the organ at Our Lady of Refuge, even though he now lives more than 230 miles away, not far from George Washington University in Washington.

It was a six-year crusade, and he used 21st-century tools like YouTube and Facebook to reach beyond Midwood. With help from his friends in the organ world — in this country and in Europe — he raised about $250,000. Few of the donors attend Our Lady of Refuge; many have never even been there. One person who donated more than $10,000 will set foot in the church for the first time on Oct. 18, when the celebrated French organist Olivier Latry plays a dedication recital.

At Our Lady of Refuge the congregation had come to depend on a grand piano near the front of the sanctuary. By the time Mr. Vitacco dropped in again, in 2006, the organ, unplayed, had become unplayable.

“Organs like this are of a very certain vintage, built in a way that’s specific to the time from which they come,” said Stephen Tharp, a concert organist who was one of the last to play the organ at Our Lady of Refuge. “When they’re left to sit for a while, they become dull. It’s like a grand old lady whose clothes have been left in mothballs too long, and gets a makeover.”

But the deteriorating organ was not the church’s biggest problem. Water had seeped through the walls of the French Gothic-style building, which was dedicated in 1934.

The church, short on cash, could scarcely afford repairs like repointing bricks. But the organ pipes had to come out before any structural work could begin.

The church paid for their removal, but that was where the pastor, the Rev. Michael A. Perry, drew the line. “He said, ‘I don’t have any money in the budget’ ” to rebuild the organ, Mr. Vitacco recalled, adding, “I had to agree. You can’t take money away from helping people.”

Undeterred, Mr. Vitacco got to work.

Read how it all came together. 

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