Pipe organ builder Hal Gober shows off the instrument he installed at the Toronto convent of the Sisters of St. John the Divine.
A couple of years ago, as the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, an Anglican order of nuns, was settling into their new convent/guest house building in Toronto, they faced an unusual problem. They were worshipping in a beautiful new chapel and had just received a substantial donation toward a pipe organ. But since the chapel had not been planned with a pipe organ in mind, there was nowhere to put it.
“We all envisioned the organ going in the corner” behind the chairs near the chapel’s entrance, said Sr. Constance Joanna, formerly the order’s reverend mother, in an interview in the chapel. However, the corner was unsuitable due to the chapel’s design. A rectangular building with the altar at one end, one of the long walls featured a gallery of large windows over a dropped ceiling. The other side of the space also had a low ceiling over the congregation, with the upper wall holding large, variously-tilted cedar panels that concealed heating and ventilation equipment. “The organ always sounds best over the heads of the people,” Sr. Constance Joanna said.
Furthermore, the sisters had decided they wanted a mechanical-action tracker organ, which meant that the keyboard had to be directly connected to the pipes, unlike an electronic or electro-pneumatic keyboard. “We knew we wanted a mechanical organ. It was just the mind of the group (of sisters). For one thing, there’s no delay when you press the keys and when the sound comes out,” said Sr. Elizabeth Ann, the order’s reverend mother and a keyboard musician
After receiving six bids, the convent chose organ builder Hal Gober, of Elora, Ont., who developed a design that tucked the organ pipes in a space under the 30-foot-high vaulted ceiling, with the keyboard directly below and next to the worshippers. “He built an organ for this space,” said Sr. Elizabeth Ann.
Mr. Gober, who has been building organs since 1969, was recently at the chapel putting some finishing touches on the instrument and said the location “required the most unique solution to the problem of putting a classical-style mechanical organ in a church.” For the intimate, 100-seat chapel he designed a two-manual (keyboard) instrument in an oak frame, with 11 hand-forged iron stops made by an Elora blacksmith. Most of the 700 pipes in the $260,000 instrument are located in the oak case, called a swell box. The organist increases the volume by depressing a foot pedal that opens the “swell shutters” in the box, letting more sound emerge from the pipes.
“As far as possible, we followed the principles of classical organ building – free-standing, in a solid wooden case, with the pipes arranged in certain patterns. With this type of organ, there are no parts that wear out, so if it doesn’t get rained on, it’ll last forever,” he said.
The organ will be dedicated on Nov. 2, with an inaugural concert scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 12 featuring organist Stephanie Martin and soprano Katherine Hill.