How an old priest from Shanghai brought a Johannus organ to the monastic village of Steyl

Published on 15 May 2017

How an old priest from Shanghai brought  a Johannus organ to the monastic village of Steyl

Organist Friedbert Ewertz was living and working in China when he found Johannus. He ordered organs there for cathedrals in Shanghai and Beijing, among other places. Back in Limburg, he proved he had not forgotten the organ builders from Ede.

St. Michael’s mission is the source of three international missionary congregations that continue to consist of ten thousand men and women to this day. The Society of the Divine Word, the first, and oldest, of the three orders, is made up of missionaries of over 70 different nationalities.

The roots of the mission lie in the monastic village of Steyl in Limburg, located just south of Venlo. In 1875, St. Arnold Janssen founded what would grow into a global missionary movement. From Steyl, a seemingly unimportant village with a population of less than 4000, thousands of missionaries departed to the four corners of the earth to spread the joyous message of the Gospel.

Kulturkampf

The mission’s location, close to the German border, is a striking detail. Although Arnold Janssen was of German origin, the Kulturkampf our easterly neighbours waged in the early 19th century meant that there was a strict ban on monasteries. Reich Chancellor Bismarck believed the Catholic church wielded too much power and accordingly adopted an anti-religious policy. Janssen settled in the Netherlands, claiming that “in an age of such destruction, it is essential that new seeds be sowed”.

That is how Steyl lost its anonymity, and gained its central role in global missionary history. Today, members from all over the world travel to the monastic village to drink in the source of their religious inspiration. Most current members come from Asia, but whatever their heritage, they all know Steyl, Roland Scheid, the mission’s rector, assures us. “It’s common heritage. Steyl is the mother, the beginning, comparable to what Assisi means to the Franciscans.”

16,000 stays

In addition, Steyl is also a tourist hotspot full of tangible history. There is a museum, there are churches and there are guest houses, which draw a considerable crowd, Scheid tells us. He leads the community and manages all activities inside and outside the guest house. “Last year, over 16,000 booked a stay in the village of Steyl. People come here for inspiration, rest, retreat, spirituality and for any number of other reasons. Apart from our brothers and sisters from all over the world, most of our guests come from the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium.”

A visit to Steyl is not complete without a visit to the village’s liturgical epicentre: St. Michael’s church, a neo-gothic basilica built between 1880 and 1884. There are three daily prayers, as well as a daily Eucharistic celebration. The celebrations are open to anyone wishing to attend.

Upper and lower church

St. Michael’s church consists of an upper and lower church. The lower church hosts the liturgical celebrations, and also houses the instruments required to support the musical parts. An organ, to be precise. More specifically: an organ made by Johannus. The 2017 Easter Vigil was officially the first time we used our new Ecclesia T-250, organist Friedbert Ewertz tells us. “Our old organ was 42 years old. When we decided to renovate the church, we also chose to replace the organ.”

Ewertz, who worked as a missionary in China for 18 years, discovered Johannus during his time abroad, ordering organs from Ede for three cathedrals in Shanghai and Beijing, among other places. “One day, an old priest in Shanghai asked me to find him a new harmonium. I thought about it and decided to give him more than just a harmonium: after seeking careful advice, I bought an Opus 20 with two manuals from Johannus, which was placed in a mid-sized cathedral in the city. I also bought one for myself, allowing me to practice in my spare time.” Later, Ewertz also ordered a Rembrandt with 63 stops and three manuals from Ede for the cathedral in the Xujiahui district of Shanghai, as well as an organ for a church in Anjang, somewhere in the middle of China. “Johannus sent Gert Stoffer to voice the organs, after they had been delivered.”

Back in Steyl

Ewertz has been back in Steyl for 6 months now, where he is in charge of the celebrations and the organ. He was closely involved in the purchase of the new instrument. “Of course I had recommended a Johannus organ, based on my own experience. The three of us – the elder, a fellow brother and myself – drove to Ede, where we tested multiple organs in the tone hall. We ended up choosing the Ecclesia: a cathedral organ with many more registers than our previous organ had. All three of us were immediately enamoured by its sound.”

Ewertz frequently plays during services himself. “An organist has a role to play for the community,” he tells us. “You don’t play for yourself. The congregation has gathered for God’s service, not for man’s. So I stay clear of virtuoso playing, trying rather to assist the service.”

He is delighted with the new Ecclesia. “Last week we hosted a provincial day with fellow brothers. They were all very enthusiastic about the new organ, and they all said it spurred them on to sing along.”

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