A triumphant return

Dawson Creek church's organ should be grander than ever after refurbishing


Tools, parts and pipes of every size fill the nave and sanctuary at St. Mark's Anglican Church.

Sunday services have been temporarily relocated to the church's hall as lots of space is needed for a major project: refurbishing music director Merrill Flewelling's 1919 Casavant pipe organ.

"It's a very complicated instrument with a very simple result: beautiful music that is created by actual wind sound - it's not electronically generated - which has a full range of frequency and full range of sound," said St. Mark's pastor Tim Johnson.

"I think what it enables is the support of a liturgical form of worship that has been valuable in the church for centuries."

The project requires a very specific skill set. Thankfully, a friend of the congregation, an electrical engineer and organist who lives out of town, was brought in to tend to the very large project, which he said gets bigger and bigger at every step. (The craftsman has asked to remain anonymous, and will be referred to as Dan Michaels.)

Michaels said working on the instrument requires both familiarity with the piece and curiosity of the unknown. Once the project is completed (this coming Ash Wednesday is the hopeful deadline) the instrument will be extended from seven to 11 ranks - organ talk for a complete set of pipes - through the addition of a Positif organ that Flewelling acquired while heading up the music program at Northern Lights College.

"He purchased, for the music department, a kit set organ of four ranks from the United States in 1980 as part of the Northern Lights College music program," said Michaels. "That arrived, they set it up in Fort St. John and tried to get it working, but it wasn't very reliable."

Michaels said the Positif sat unused since then, mostly gathering dust. Now, not only are the two instruments being married, but upgraded with an electrical system for ease of use and tuning, without taking away from the natural wind sound.

The main organ was built by Casavant Freres in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. Michaels noted that at the time of its construction, a metals ban was in place because of World War I.

"The pipes had to be made in France and imported as a completed part," said Michaels, explaining how all scrap metal was supposed to be reserved for the war effort, but an exception was made for unbroken, complete pieces.

The Casavant was originally installed at an Anglican cathedral in Edmonton, where it was converted from tubular-pneumatic action - the organ's console is connected through lead tubes to the valves that control wind through the pipes - to electro-pneumatic action, in which electric current, controlled by the keys of the organ console, operates the valves.

"Sometime during the 1960s, two things happened: one was that the original pneumatic action was converted to electro-pneumatic and it moved to the St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Dawson Creek," said Michaels, adding that during this time a leak in the roof of the church caused damage to the instrument - the extent of which they discovered during this process of refurbishing.

"Their style of liturgy and music changed and they no longer had a need for it, so they wanted to dispose of it. That's when Merrill bought it."

Flewelling purchased the instrument, installing it in the Truss Factory in Dawson Creek. Then, under new ownership, it again had to be moved, this time to a storage unit.

"When Merrill took up the music director position here [at St. Mark's], the organ was installed in the church here," said Michaels.

The Casavant organ has been in place at St. Mark's since 2010, although Johnson said they haven't yet been able to play it to its full potential.

Pipe organs are a rare sight in churches in the North. Michaels attributes part of that to the challenge of maintaining the instruments, with the climate offering an extra roadblock in terms of keeping them in tune and functioning properly.

"I haven't heard of any pipe organs north of Prince George in this province," said Michaels.

Johnson added that with much of the development in the region coming after the 1950s, the option of bringing in modern electric organs was already in place.

"By the 50s or 60s, if you were looking at a new church and a new organ, electrics are possible, ... whereas 50 years before that, you either had a pipe organ or you didn't have an organ," said Johnson.

A part of the current project at St. Mark's is also moving the massive instrument, which required disassembling the entire organ, consisting of more than 400 parts. Michaels pointed out that one part of the organ, the wind chest, required six people to lift.

"Having disassembled it, we were able to see that there was damage inside it that had to be repaired. So part of this process is to recondition and repair the damage that was done and the aging process that has damaged parts of it," said Michaels.

Various problems came up that temporarily stopped or delayed the renovation process, he said - there was no point in continuing on without addressing them.

"There's only one way you can do organ building, and that's doing it right the first time, or you have all of these other problems down the road," said Michaels.

Michaels has been at work on the project since December. Although every piece of the organ is meticulously labeled and placed around the church, he said there is still quite a bit to do.

"There are 160 adjustments of individual valves to be done, pipes to be regulated and tuned back again, just to get the main Casavant organ working - let alone the extension - so still a lot of work to do," he said.

Although the primary funding for the project has come from Flewelling, as the owner of the instrument, there have been a number of donations of time, tools and parts to make the project come together - not to mention the support of St. Mark's Church.

Jim Jarvis, a mechanical engineer from Fort St. John, has contributed a great deal of time to the project, Brad Manson and Gordon Moffat supplied vehicles, Don Sterling of EPSCAN sourced cables and control components for the organ, and Rip's Shoe Renu put in leather working items and tools. Michaels was also flown into town with Air Miles points donated by Anne Clayton.

Johnson said it was a sort of "happy accident" that the Casavant made its way to Dawson Creek - adding that it was an extra bonus that the problematic Positif organ will have life again after never functioning properly.

"I've never seen anything like this," said Johnson. "There's a way in which it's a community project, and a church project."

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