I’ve been spending a lot of virtual time in Montréal, a city I would love to visit again. Recently while reading about the Basilica of Notre-Dame I came across the name of the pipe organ company Casavant Frères, which opened a flood of memories from a time in my past, while I was parish secretary for the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park, Cincinnati.
Sometime in the early 1960s, I believe 1964, the church opted to have a pipe organ installed, and purchased the instrument from that Quebec company. A search revealed the company, considered one of the best in the world, is still active and producing these wonderful instruments. I don’t recall what kind of organ our Casavant replaced, but I’m guessing probably an electronic instrument of some kind.
We were aware the installation would require a considerable amount of time and had made accommodations for that. What we didn’t understand was how much space it would require. When the team pulled up to the church in a large eighteen-wheeler, our immediate problem was language. They spoke very little English. Nobody on the staff spoke French … I had one year of college French, primarily a diction class which had been a requirement for my vocal music major at the College-Conservatory of Music.
So beyond wishing them good day, asking their names and introducing myself, asking them how they were and were they hungry, we were at an impasse. Fortunately, a young member of the parish had spent some time in France, and a phone call resulted in her arriving on the premises pretty quickly.
“French Canadian is quite different from that spoken in Europe,” she told us. “But I’ll do the best I can.”
Our new French Canadian friends broke into broad smiles when Barbara started talking to them. The language barrier between two different kinds of spoken French was surmountable, especially because when they needed they could write things out. The written language is the same.
The next obstacle was a real game changer. None of us had given serious thought as to what a pipe organ actually consists of. The team began to unload the tractor-trailer, and as pieces were brought into the sanctuary the magnitude of this undertaking became apparent. Some of the pipes were over half the length of the sanctuary. A number of these large pipes had to be laid across rows and rows of pews. And there were so many of them! All summer events that year had to be moved to the church’s undercroft or to an outdoor location. Services, weddings, baptisms … anything and everything.
To the best of my memory, it was about a three month process to install the instrument. But it was worth every second of it. The sound was glorious, and we had an inaugural concert by the great concert organist E. Power Biggs. By then our friends from Quebec had returned to Canada, but they left a memory of dedicated craftsmen who loved what they did. And could they ever put together a pipe organ.
Casavant-Frères, je vous salue!