Tonawanda News

February 19, 2013

St. Francis unveils chapel's first pipe organ in 70 years

By Danielle Haynes
The Tonawanda News

CITY OF TONAWANDA — Robert Hull looked like he was in heaven taking the newly installed pipe organ at the chapel at St. Francis of Assisi for a spin earlier this month. 

He tested out each of the organ’s six ranks, its handful of chimes and many of the 447 pipes housed in two cabinets behind the chapel’s altar. 

Hull, the parish’s musical director, opened the console from where he plays to show off the thousands of tiny wires connecting each key on the double keyboard to each pipe. He explained how pressing a key sends an electrical current causing air to blow through its corresponding pipe. There was a lot of other stuff he described too, that just couldn’t fit in this space.

“I can talk about pipe organs all day,” Hull said with a laugh.

It’s that passion for the instrument that led to the chapel unveiling its very first pipe organ in at least 70 years on Feb. 1.

Hull joined St. Francis in May 2011 as the parish’s musical director. He said he was in between organist positions after his home church, Sacred Heart in Niagara Falls, closed and the church was looking for someone new. 

“It just sort of fell into place and I’ve been very happy here and try to be very involved in the music program,” Hull said.

The Rev. Michael Uebler described Hull as a “very accomplished” musician that the parish is lucky to have.

“It’s been a great pleasure having him here,” he said.

Hull, who first began learning to play the piano at age 3 and had his first church organist position at age 14, said he pitched the idea of getting an organ for the church’s smaller chapel, and once Uebler agreed, the search was on.

“It was important to me that a space like the chapel — which is a very sacred space and also a place for bereavement and funerals — really deserves a good instrument,” Hull said.

The biggest challenge, both said, was finding something to fit the small space. Some organs, like many of the larger ones in Buffalo, can have as many as 10,000 pipes, far too many to fit inside the small chapel used for funerals, daily mass and choir rehearsals.

The search took a while because a few plans fell through, but eventually settled on purchasing one taken out of a newly renovated chapel at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville. The M.D. Moller pipe organ was built in 1960 and consists of two moveable cabinets holding 447 pipes and a separate console that holds the double keyboard.

The trip to collect the organ was a quick one. Hull flew down to Nashville, rented a truck, loaded up the organ and drove back to the City of Tonawanda within 24 hours. He had a 9-months pregnant wife to get back to, after all. 

Weeks later with a new baby at home — the Hulls’ second — and a handful of other jobs and obligations keeping him busy, Hull spent any odd time he got putting together the thousands of wires necessary to make the instrument work. It sometimes meant working into the early hours of the morning.

“I have a love of building things and engineering things. I really enjoy doing all that work,” he said. “The wiring was a lot of work. Any chance I’d get I’d come in here and wire up a couple wires.”

After some minor repairs and tweaks — some of the leather work needed replacing and the organ needed to be tuned and voiced — and the instrument was ready to go Feb. 1.

It hasn’t been used much at this point, but Hull and Uebler are eager for the congregation to hear the change from the piano they used to use.

“People forget that there’s so much great organ music and it adds so much to a service. It just enhances the worship,” Hull said. “A pipe organ is timeless. It doesn’t wear out, it doesn’t go out of style. The sounds don’t become obsolete.”

“It sounds magnificent. It’s a great addition to the chapel,” Uebler said. “We used it at a prayer service and everybody said it was better than they thought it would be. Everyone’s happy with it.”

And it fits the space perfectly, they said.

“Change is tough for everybody, but we wanted something that when you look at it, it looks like it was always there and we think we’ve accomplished that,” Uebler said.

“The best instrument is the space, not the organ, and we have a good space here in the chapel,” Hull added.




Contact features editor Danielle Haynes at 693-1000, ext. 4116.