New sounds at cathedral

Shortly after its arrival in early February, Anita Purcell, a member of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Foundation board, played the continuo organ at the cathedral as Carey Bliley listens. To the left, Hal Purcell, a member of the cathedral finance council, talks with Dean Eckman of Juget-Sinclair. (Photo provided)

First part of organ project completed


Worshippers and visitors at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, Richmond, will be hearing new sounds this spring as installation of a continuo organ and choir organ, which began Feb. 21, is nearing completion.

The continuo organ can be used in the sanctuary as well as transported to other locations for community events. The choir organ has been permanently placed in the sanctuary and will be used for smaller liturgies or choral presentations. As part of the installation, the organs, built by Juget-Sinclair Organ builders in Montreal, are being “voiced” for the cathedral’s acoustics.

With the goal of preserving the church’s aging building, the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Foundation, comprised of 12 volunteers, was created in 2013. The foundation works closely with cathedral employees to identify and remedy structural issues while also seeking ways to improve the edifice, inside and out. The foundation created a list of projects to help revitalize the cathedral, the most ambitious of which was acquiring three new pipe organs.

Foundation members searched nationally and internationally for organs that were appropriate for the cathedral. Learning that high caliber organs can be played for several centuries, the foundation sought organs that would also stand the test of time in Richmond.

Since organ building is a niche art, the vetting process was extensive. The foundation researched different organ types, spoke with several organ experts and interviewed various companies before commissioning Juget-Sinclair to build the three organs.

Pipes for the choir organ installed in the sanctuary at Cathedral of Sacred Heart, Richmond, are visible above one of the archways. The choir organ and a continuo organ are the first part of a $3.2 million project undertaken by the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Foundation. (Photo provided)

It chose organs that followed the “warm” French method of organ building rather than the German method, which evokes a sharper sound. The work was painstaking, with hundreds of moving parts and pipes needing to be meticulously placed and tuned for each organ. Once they were successfully assembled in Canada, the organs were disassembled and delivered to Richmond, where they had to be put together once more.

With installation of the continuo and choir organs nearing completion, the foundation’s attention is focused on the gallery organ. That organ, built in 1912, has been restored and rebuilt several times over the last 100 years, but it has fallen into disrepair and is no longer financially viable to keep.

The foundation secured much of the $3 million needed for the three organs through a “quiet” fundraising campaign within the parish as well as through several large gifts and grants. One of those gifts was a $1 million bequest from deceased longtime parishioner Francis T. Eck.

Carey Bliley, another longtime parishioner as well as the president of Bliley’s Funeral Homes, explained why Eck’s money was used for the organ.

“Frank loved the cathedral; it was so important to him,” said Bliley. “He contributed to many causes, and he always had a love for the music ministry. I think he would love to know his legacy would be tied to the organ project and how it will bring many people, Catholic, Christian and others, into the cathedral.”

As a child, Bliley tagged along with his father to the family business. He was drawn to the organ that he could hear being played during funerals, listening and learning how music comforted those in their darkest times. He started taking lessons when he was 7 and hasn’t stopped playing since, including at the cathedral where he’s played for nearly 20 years. As chair of the pipe organ committee, Bliley used his passion and knowledge of organs to help choose the best organs for the space.

Kim Kremer, treasurer of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart Foundation, said that an organ is like a living being.

“The pipe organ is like a person,” she said, “in that it breathes and requires air. As with a human being, every pipe in the instrument has a singing voice. In order to sing, the organ needs a chest filled with air. In a way, building a pipe organ is akin to the Genesis story of God’s human creation.”

According to Father Anthony Marques, rector of the cathedral since 2019, the organs are integral to Catholic liturgies.

“The Church recognizes that the pipe organ is the only acoustical instrument that can sustain the singing of hundreds of people within a sacred space. For centuries, the sacred texts of liturgies were always sung,” he said. “The pairing of sacred text with sacred music has always enhanced and colored the syllables of words to engage the understanding of listeners.”

Daniel Sañez, director of music and liturgy at the cathedral, noted that the reason behind the organ project was to attempt to reflect God’s immense beauty and to provide people with the opportunity to encounter what is sacred and beautiful.

“Churches and cathedrals are first and foremost sacred spaces,” he said. “They are also public buildings intended to teach the faith and inspire the visitor, to ignite their prayer and contemplation.”

The gallery organ is scheduled to be installed in 2024.

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