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Opus 81: Historic birthday coming for rare Calgary pipe organ

A piece of history lies in a northwest Calgary church, and it’s about to turn 150 years old.

Opus 81, an O’Dell Organ originally completed in 1870 for the Presbyterian Church in Ossining, New York, now resides at the Highwood Lutheran Church on Northmount Drive NW. It’s the oldest pipe organ in Alberta and the second oldest in Canada.  It’s also the only O’Dell pipe organ in Canada.

The mechanical, tracker-action instrument stretches nearly three storeys high and takes up a massive space behind the church pulpit. In fact, the current church was essentially built to accommodate the piece.

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“We’re actually standing in the organ here, although it’s a worship space. The pipes go up, they fill a vault up top, music comes out across the worship space and drops down into the congregation,” said Rev. Michael Wellman, pastor at the Highwood Lutheran Church.

“So, this is all one big musical instrument.”

The full-throated sesquicentenarian is a source of immense pride for the church and they’ve been careful to track its history in Calgary, dating back to 1967 when it was first purchased.

Eastern trek to bring the organ to Calgary

The Highwood Lutheran church was built around Opus 81 back in the 1960s. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

While the Calgary pipe organ was originally purchased for $4,000 from the O’Dell Organ Company of New York by the Presbyterian Church in Ossining, Calgary pastor Oscar Sommerfield led a group to bring it to the city in 1967.

They purchased it for $500 from a Baptist church in the same city.

Sommerfield and Mr. and Mrs. Robert Hooper drove to New York, dismantled it and arranged for transport. It sat for two years in the parsonage before hundreds of volunteer hours were put into its construction.

“They were just putting it together and learning as they went and fixing as they went,” said long time Highwood organist, Rick Vander Woude.

And most of it is still original – minus a few repairs and some of the front housing for the pipes.

Thousands of pieces come together

The Opus 81 has two keyboards, each with 58 keys. The pedal has 25 keys. There are 23 ranks (complete sets of pipes), four couplers, eight combination pistons and roughly 1,000 individual pipes.

The largest pipe is 16 feet. The smallest is a few inches.

The Calgary pipe organ design is British American, Vander Woude explained, giving it a fuller, richer sound than French versions, which tend to have a ‘nasal’ sound.

It’s maintained by a local expert from the National Music Centre, and it takes roughly a day or so to tune. But staying on top of the small things like pin replacements or even the church’s humidity help keep the Calgary pipe organ in top condition.

“The organ also adjusts from winter to summer; we can tell with the changing humidity it tightens up and then it starts leaking a little bit and then it relaxes, and then it’s fine again,” said Vander Woude.

“So, we have to watch the humidity levels in the church.”

The church did replace some of the pipes back in 2017, with pipes that were older than this model of organ.

Vander Woude said with continued maintenance, the organ could last another 150 years – like many of the great pipe organ in European churches.

Concerts, liturgy and recording sessions

Highwood Lutheran organist Rick Vander Woude shows off the 150 year old pipes at the northwest Calgary church. DARREN KRAUSE / LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Both Rev. Wellman and Vander Woude said despite its age, the organ provides tremendous flexibility – even paired with modern music.

Its primary use is to accompany singing during the church’s worship. Vander Woude said he can change the sounds to accompany the tone of the sermon and the hymns.

“If it’s very triumphant, I’m using more of the trumpets. If it’s more reflective, it’s softer sounds,” he said.

“Or just to keep the people on track as they’re going, and you’ll back the volume off, depending on what the verse is, what the theme of the music is. So, it’s never the same. It’s always changing from one section to the next.”

Wellman said it also accompanies other instruments and they try to have at least one concert a year in the church. Saxophones, recorders, trumpets and vocal groups have all had their time with Opus 81.

Calgary pipe organ: ‘This is a special thing’

Wellman, who has been pastor at Highwood for four years, said the church was drifting into obscurity before his arrival. It’s an aging congregation and the church itself is kind of tucked into the community of Highwood.

He said more Calgarians need to know about this historical instrument, humbly serving in a modest city church.

“This is a special thing and people need to know that this is here to appreciate it and to take advantage of hearing it,” Wellman said.

“To just have it languish and become derelict would be a real shame.”

The piece has been designated a historic instrument by the Royal Canadian College of Organists and must meet a strict criterion to be accepted.

But all the time and work is worth it, Wellman said.

“It’s a visceral excitement that you get going through your veins hearing this,” he said.

“That’s something people need to know about.”