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A Tale of Two Organs

Imagine Saint Anselm Abbey Church without its organ music. Fortunately, the monastic community cannot. So when the old pipe organ needed repair, they purchased a temporary replacement: a Johannus state-of-the-art organ from the Netherlands, which digitally reproduces the sound of historic organs in Europe.

The timing was good: the small pipe organ in the monastery’s old choir chapel needed to retire after decades of venerable service. In late October, when the original church organ was back in business, the digital organ was moved into the old choir chapel, where it is used occasionally.

“We came to like this sound very much for singing because it’s gentle,” says Br. Andrew Thornton, O.S.B., the monastery’s principal organist, of the Johannus organ. It is a delight to play, he says, because it has different sounds: “You can pretend you’re in the 19th century with a big French organ sound, and then play a Bach fugue.”

The old Casavant Fréres pipe organ was repaired by Pelland Pipe Organ Company in Derry, N.H., the firm that has long provided tuning services for the Abbey. This is the organ that accompanies the monastic liturgical hours of prayer, daily Mass, weekend Mass, choir performances, wedding ceremonies, and other church events. It was built specifically for Saint Anselm Abbey Church in 1966 in Saint Hyacinthe, Québec and has 2,548 wind blown pipes ranging from 16 feet to 1.5 inches in size. The 47 ranks of pipes stand hidden by an oak screen in the organ loft. Many of the pipes’ leather valves had deteriorated, and were removed for repair.

Anselmian Organists

Br. Andrew (who teaches courses in German and philosophy) began organ lessons at age 16 at Notre Dame College, having played the piano since age seven. He became the organist at Saint Anselm Abbey as a novice. In addition to its principal organist, the Abbey is fortunate in having three more monks who can play for church and monastic activities.

Fr. Peter Guerin, O.S.B., also began piano lessons at a young age. “The sisters had me play for school, and the parish had me play for requiem masses,” he says. “I played through grade school, high school and college.” His only formal lessons were a summer at New England Conservatory and a summer at Catholic University. (He is also a fine singer, even singing the 10-minute-long Exsultet, or Easter Proclamation, unaccompanied.)

Fr. Bede Camera, O.S.B., plays occasionally for the community during monastic prayer. At college events he is most likely directing the Saint Anselm College Choir while Br. Andrew provides spirited accompaniment.

Abbot Matthew Leavy, O.S.B, also plays on occasion.