Pipe Organ breathes new life at Zion Church

The Psalmist said, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord… Come into his presence with singing.”

For the congregation and choir at the Zion Church in Baltimore, Maryland, the charge to make a joyful noise had become increasingly difficult, as the church’s Eisenhower-era pipe organ neared the end of its useful life.  The situation had gotten so bad that music director John Heizer often found himself scratching sacred favorites from the service order, while manfully eliciting what sound he could for other hymns from a fragile, dying instrument.

All of that is about to change as more than a decade’s worth of planning and work is now bearing fruit with the installation of a new pipe organ.

Church member Irene Deur spearheaded the effort to replace Zion's aging  instrument
Church member Irene Duerr spearheaded the effort to replace Zion’s aging instrument.

Patrick J. Murphy & Associates, Inc. from nearby Stowe, Pennsylvania is the firm under contract to supply the new instrument.  Back in November, The Baltimore Post-Examiner joined a group of about a dozen members of the Zion church for a tour of the facility to see the work in progress.

We were greeted that day by company owner Patrick J. Murphy and by Service Manger Mathew D. Newcome.  Patrick J. Murphy & Associates was established in 1987.  They have been at their present location – a red brick structure which once housed an old fishing gear factory – since 1989.

Newcome said the company, with a staff of 12, currently completes about one project per quarter.  Along with building and refurbishing organs, the company also services about 125 instruments in various parts of the country.  One employee even serviced the theater organ at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.  Horror movie fans will recognize that venue as the frenzied setting for the classic sci-fi horror feature, The Blob.

Murphy organs may be found at a number of universities and in churches all over the United States: in Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic church in New Orleans; the Church of the Annunciation in Lewisville, Texas; the Church of the Ascension in Denver, Colorado, and at the Reform Church of Colts Neck, New Jersey.

Locally, Murphy has fabricated new instruments for St. Ignatius Roman Catholic in Mt. Vernon and St. Marks Lutheran in upper Charles Village.

Patrick J. Murphy and John Heizer discuss the new organ's progress while standing behind a rail of finished pipes.
Patrick J. Murphy and John Heizer discuss the new organ’s progress while standing behind a rank  of finished pipes.

Patrick Murphy told the Baltimore Post-Examiner he became enthralled with the pipe organ at the age of 14, when he attended his first concert.  Soon after that experience, he began taking lessons.

“I was taking lessons and my teacher, Virgil Cox, was someone who built organs.  He was a one-man operation who also offered tuning services.  When I turned 18, my mom said ‘Get a job’ so I went to work for Virgil.  I stayed there until one day, when he said, ‘You know more than I do.  It’s time to move along.’  So I apprenticed for another 2 years in a shop in Lancaster before finally striking out on my own.”

Murphy adds, “I’ve got a performance degree, but I don’t really use it much anymore.  Building organs is a full time occupation.”

The spacious factory is divided into four main areas: the work shop, wood shop, pipe shop and erecting room.  All of the components must be finished, fitted and tested before the organ leaves the factory.

There are about 500,000 miscellaneous parts to assemble.  The real test, we were told, is finding the small handful which may need additional tweaking before the organ can be pieced together.

Service Manger Mathew Newcome explains how pipes are fitted into a rail.
Service Manger Mathew Newcome explains how pipes are fitted into a rank.

One of the first parts of the process is the removal of the old organ.  In the case of Zion’s antiquated  instrument (an M.P. Möller organ constructed in Hagerstown around 1959), about 10 of the original stops, and a small percentage of the pipes, were re-used.

The stop list on a church organ depends almost entirely on a congregation’s musical traditions.  An organ for a German Lutheran church (such as Zion) will be different than one built for either  Methodists or a traditional Roman Catholic church.  And even a Catholic church organ will differ if the congregation favors a more contemporary songbook.  Each organ is built to the needs and the specifications of the individual congregation.

About 45,000 man hours go into the construction of every organ. If a problem crops up and you’re off by 1%, you are off by a whole lot of money.

Murphy uses modern machinery and engineering in the construction of the individual components, but otherwise builds his organs the old fashioned way – utilizing materials and methods which have withstood the test of time.

“We can’t afford to use a customer as a training ground,” Murphy explained.  “After all, my name is Murphy, and we have a law.”

Murphy illustrated his point by telling the group about the Perflex debacle.

“Several decades ago, some builders began using Perflex (a synthetic material developed during the Vietnam war), instead of leather, for their pneumatic chest pouches.  After about 10 years, the Perflex started to fail, rendering the instruments inoperable.  Several companies went bankrupt trying to cover the warranties on their failing instruments.”

The wood in a Murphy organ is a combination of solid oak and cherry.  Almost all of the pipes are made by Organ Supply Industries in Erie Pa.  Murphy said his company also has a special stock of Kimball pipes on hand. “They’re old, but in many ways, they are better than new.

Voicing specialist Fred Bahr tuned over 2,500 pipes for the new organ.
Voicing specialist Fred Bahr tuned over 2,500 pipes for the new organ.

“Kimball pipes are hard to come by these days and are highly prized.”

All of the pipes are hand fitted to their ranks.  It’s a time consuming process, but the fit must be precise.  Once the pipes have been assembled, they are carefully voiced by Fredrick Bahr, the company’s Voicing and Tonal Director.

Bahr is well know throughout the industry.  He has 35 years experience in making the sound of the pipes “just right.”   In an age of automation, watching a craftsman like Bahr tuning pipes at his bench is akin to stepping back to another time. “We use a lot of scientific terms here like, ‘A little bit’.  There are no manuals in the voicing shop.  It’s all experience.  Anything that has metal has a degree of subtlety.  And no two pipes are exactly alike,” Bahr said.

Bahr nicks the lips of each pipe with a file – sometimes 8-10 times – and checks the tonal quality and the pitch by blowing thru them.  With some of the larger pipes he will use an electronic test console.  The larger pipes can stand upwards of sixteen feet and weigh as much as 150 lbs.  The smaller ones may be the size of a pencil.

“With an electronic tuner you can get the pipes tuned to about 75-80%.  The rest is fine tuning by ear on site.”

In the new Zion organ, there are 39 ranks with 60 or more pipes per rank.  When he’s done, Bahr will have tuned 2,572 pipes.

The 500,000 part organ will be largely assembled when it leaves the shop.  But the crew in the field will still handle some 50,000 parts.  Once completed, the Murphy craftsmen will have produced a state of the art machine.

Bahr must turn it from a machine into a musical instrument.

Megan Farrell solders a support bracket on one of the smaller pipes.
Megan Farrell solders a support bracket onto one of the smaller pipes.

It’s a tedious, time-consuming process.  Yet everyone we encountered seemed completely relaxed as they went about their work.

“We encourage everyone to have an ancillary hobby outside of the shop.  Many of the employees are also musicians.  Ultimately, it’s about gathering a staff that can collaborate and work together,” Newcome said.

The last stop on the tour allowed the group to take a look at the finished console.  The stunning  wood cabinetry gleamed with a soft satin shine.

“This is our signature console,” Murphy said.  “It’s the one we use the most.”

Heizer smiled as he inspected the carefully crafted piece. “Very nice so far.”

*   *   *   *   *

Murphy’s entire crew was on hand the day the organ was delivered.  As of last Friday, the console had been hoisted up into the choir loft and the ornamental pipe work was already in place. The two opposing brass-toned ranks (which will be the only pipes visible to the congregation) will consist of 66 pipes. Only 15 will be purely facade or non-functioning pieces.  The remainder join the concealed pipes which make up the ranks in the new instrument.

Crates full of pipes fill the Zion Church sanctuary.
Crates full of pipes fill the Zion Church sanctuary.

The installation will take all of January and February and at least a part of March. Once the actual assembly of the organ is complete, a two man crew will do all of the final voicing; working Monday – Friday for about 6 weeks.  The church hopes to have the work completed in time for Easter services.  Pastor Holger Roggelin told the Baltimore Post-Examiner a Dedication ceremony will take place sometime in September and may coincide with the feast of St. Cecilia.  The total cost for the project will be about $617,000.  And the total organ weight is between 18,000 – 19,000 lbs.

The old M.P. Möller organ served the people at Zion well for over 50 years.  Heizer believes that with care, the new Murphy organ could last almost indefinitely.  “It’s just a better quality instrument,” Heizer said.

Murphy said that most church organ projects germinate in 1-3 years.  Zion’s has been in the works now for well over a decade.  But the congregation has moved forward with prayerful planning, some vociferous give and take, and numerous fund-raisers (including a benefit concert which featured beloved violinist Hilary Hahn).  It has taken time, but for his part, Murphy sees that process as a good thing.

“Zion first contacted us in September of 2001.  We’re well established in the business now and have access to the best contractors and craftsmen.  Right now, we’re at the top of our game.”

The Bible says that when King Solomon built his magnificent temple in Jerusalem, he asked King Hiram of Tyre to provide both choice materials and skilled craftsmen.  Solomon also followed the plans of his father, King David, by employing 4,000 Levites who praised the Lord with hand crafted instruments.

Investing in an organ in these austere times is certainly a faith-filled undertaking.  But clearly the congregation at Zion Church in Baltimore remains true to the Word as they continue making a joyful noise unto The Lord.


Editor’s note: This is the sixth part of an ongoing series which will look at the places and people that make up the rich history and diverse nature of spirituality, belief and observance in Baltimore and beyond. Read the series here.