Historic installation of awe-inspiring organ underway at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart

Six craftsmen from Juget-Sinclair Organbuilders unpacked a 53-foot truck carrying about half the pieces of the Cathedral of the new pipe organ at the Sacred Heart, Richmond, April 2, 2024. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

Six expert craftsmen from Juget-Sinclair Organbuilders began the culmination of a massive undertaking at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, before 8 a.m. on Tuesday, April 2.

Just the day before, they drove 691 miles from Montréal, Québec, to Richmond, and arrived at 9 p.m. At 7:30 the following morning, a 53-foot truck, packed with about half the pieces of a 15-ton pipe organ, pulled up next to the cathedral.

The organ builders wasted no time getting to work, meticulously unloading the truck piece by piece, making sure nothing had been damaged in transit. The craftsmen spoke to each other in French as they carefully carried each piece into the cathedral; it took two men to carry some of the larger pipes and all six to maneuver the console through the side doors. They were laser focused as they worked nonstop for six hours to unload the truck, taking only a very short lunch break to eat pizza.

At 2:30 p.m., there was a collective sigh of relief as the workers finished unloading the truck. Speaking in English with French accents, the men said they were “very pleased, that everything went according to plan … it went smoothly.”

Another worker smiled, as he said, “It’s always a blessing when none of the pieces are damaged.”

After unloading the truck, the organ pieces were laid on top of 44 pews, as well as along the back and sides of the cathedral. Their work was not done for the day. The organ builders dove right into the installation process that afternoon – lifting some of the pieces up into the choir loft one at a time. This was the start of the monthlong process of assembling the pipe organ into its new, permanent home.

Craftsmen, with Juget-Sinclair Organbuilders in Montreal, bring a piece for the gallery pipe organ into the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, Tuesday, April 2, 2024. They designed and built the organ in Canada for the cathedral. It was disassembled for transportation to Richmond and will be rebuilt inside the Cathedral. (Photo/Alexa Welch Edlund)

Old-world craftsmanship

The cathedral’s new gallery organ has 4,332 pipes and 67 stops – the largest ever made by Juget-Sinclair, which has built more than 50 organs for clients around the world.

The organ builders are artisans in their craft; they produce all parts at their workshop in Montréal. They design and build each piece by hand, allowing them to create custom instruments for each unique space.

Sketch of Juget-Sinclair’s plans for new gallery pipe organ at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond.

The cathedral’s organ is called the Opus 55 since it is Juget-Sinclair’s 55th creation. The organ was built at the workshop, then disassembled to be delivered to Richmond. The organ is so large that the Juget-Sinclair workshop had to be remodeled in order to accommodate it.

The Opus 55 is the third and final piece of the cathedral’s pipe organ project. The cathedral’s organ committee contracted with Juget-Sinclair to build all three organs.

The showpiece is a mammoth compared to the other two organs, which were both delivered in 2022. The Opus 54 is a choir organ that was installed near the altar area; it has 1,494 pipes and 21 stops. The Opus 53, a continuo organ with 203 pipes and 4 stops, can be transported to other locations.

“The instruments will operate with old-world mechanical action which is found in organs at 15th and 16th century European churches – and still functioning perfectly,” said Carey Bliley, chair of the cathedral’s organ committee.

Bliley added that it’s “exciting that craftspeople like the Juget-Sinclair Organbuilders still exist and will make a long-lasting impact on Richmond through their remarkable talents.”

Daniel Sañez, director of music and liturgy at the cathedral, called it a historic day. “We’re getting this fantastic new instrument, right here in Richmond, … I would say on the same level or the same significance as great European instruments that have existed for hundreds of years,” he said.

Craftsmen from Juget-Sinclair Organbuilders unload pieces of the cathedral’s 15-ton pipe organ at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, April 2, 2024. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

Showpiece reassembled

The truck, which arrived April 2, was the first of two trucks to deliver the cathedral’s organ pieces. The second truck, also 53 feet long, arrived at the cathedral the following week, on April 8. Though the second truck was also full, it took the workers slightly less time to unload: four hours.

Work has been underway since April 2 to install the showpiece organ at the cathedral, but this massive project actually began nine years ago.

The cathedral’s original gallery organ was installed not long after construction was completed on the cathedral in 1906. It had been rebuilt, repaired, and refurbished numerous times over its 118 years of use. Despite these efforts, the organ continued to deteriorate and parts of it were literally held together by duct tape.

In 2015, the cathedral received the first report from independent consultants that said the original organ was unsalvageable, and that any further attempts to repair it would be futile. Two more reports from consultants would produce the same results. The original organ was removed from the cathedral in January 2023.

The cathedral assembled a committee in 2016 to research organs that were still working after centuries of use.

The committee members spent their own money to travel to Nebraska and Texas, as well as to Belgium, France, Monaco, and Spain, to hear the tonal quality of different organs and see how well the different builders had adopted the instruments to different spaces.

“We wanted an organ that would fit this cathedral aesthetically,” said Anne Kenny-Urban, board member and former chair of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Foundation, which raises money for the historical preservation of the building.

The morning of April 2 was a chilly, overcast day, but Sañez, Bliley, and several members of the cathedral’s foundation still gathered excitedly to watch the first arrival of the organ pieces. “A lot of time and effort went into making today happen,” Bliley said, as he watched the workers unpack the first truck.

A few days after the first truck was unloaded, the workers built a barrier wall in the church between the tenth and eleventh pews from the front. This allows unassembled pieces of the organ to remain spread out in the church behind the wall during the installation process. Mass will still be celebrated at the cathedral during this time, with seating reduced to the first eight rows of pews in the front, plus all of the seating in the transepts.

Pieces of the new gallery organ spread out at Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, April 8, 2024. (Photo/Kim Kremer)

After the organ has been assembled, the organ builders will continue to the “voicing” phase – when each of the 4,332 pipes will be made to play a particular sound, tone, and volume. The hope is the voicing will start at the end of April and, because of the meticulous process, could go into July.

“It’s exciting, after all these years of so many drawings, sketches, and plans, to see this finally happening,” Kenny-Urban said.


Editor’s note:

Read a reflection on the pipe organ by Father Anthony E. Marques, rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart.

See more photos from the day the first truck arrived with the organ pieces.

Read about the first part of the cathedral’s organ project.

Scroll to Top