The Basilica of Immaculate Conception’s New Organ: A Marriage of Art and Technology
November 14, 2022 • Diocese of St. Augustine

By Lilla Ross

Basilica of Immaculate Conception’s Pipe Organ. Photo credit: Fran Ruchalski

In 1945, as World War II was winding down, the parish of Immaculate Conception in downtown Jacksonville made a major expenditure to refurbish its pipe organ.

Hutchings Organ Company built the organ with 30 ranks of pipes for the new parish that was built after the Great Fire of 1901. 

By the 1940s, the organ needed repairs and upgrades. Eugene Binder, a pipe organ builder in Jacksonville, laid out the extensive work that would be done in a letter to Father James Meehan dated Jan. 8, 1945. 

The refurbished organ would have the latest electro-pneumatic wind chests, a new console and the bellows, powered by water pressure, would now be operated with electricity. The organ would be brought up to the standards of the American Guild of Organists. The cost: $2,565.

Work was done on the organ in the intervening years. Trumpet pipes, discovered in the basement, were installed in 1975. But the organ in what is now the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is again in need of repairs and upgrades. The pipes need to be cleaned, the wiring and bellows upgraded and the console replaced. The cost: $200,000.

William H. Longmore & Associates in Lake City is refurbishing the pipes. Allen Organ Co. in Macungie, Pa., is building the new console, which Dunne Music Co., of Pompano Beach, will install and tonally finish to work seamlessly with the pipework. 

“We will be revoicing the pipes and bringing out the main pipes, the principal voices,” said Zack Emerson, co-owner of Longmore. “The pipes in the balcony will be reconfigured in a V-shape.”

The organ will have about 450 “speaking” pipes, including two that are 32 feet long.

The big upgrade will be the console, a hybrid model combining traditional wind-blown pipework sound with digital augmentation.

“The new console upgrade will be a massive improvement. It will have a lot more functionality,” Emerson said. “A hybrid instrument gives you so many options. You’re not limited by the number of pipes; you’re only limited by the number of speakers.”

Brian Daggett, president of Dunne Music Co., said a hybrid organ is “a marriage of art and technology.”

Allen developed the digital technology for organs in 1971.

“It was pooh-poohed by the industry,” Daggett said. “The founder, Jerome Markowitz, saw the future and secretly worked with digital computer chips and produced the first digital church organ. Now everything is digital.”

The digital sounds are recordings from the world’s greatest pipe organs recreated when the organist plays the instrument, Daggett said.

“Fashion has worn out more pipe organs than playing ever did,” Daggett said. “They need to be rebuilt periodically, but they will last virtually forever. As generations go along, the organ literature used in many churches has changed. Musical tastes can change. When this happens, pipe organs built over 100 years ago may no longer completely satisfy the musical requirements of the church.  

 “Back in 1908, they weren’t exactly playing the kind of music used in the church today. They often were playing transcriptions, works for orchestra that were rewritten for organ,” Daggett said. “But this organ, with digital pipe samples from many schools of organ building, i.e., French, English, German and American, will be able to play any literature ever written for the organ with stylistic accuracy. We will bring the organ into the 21st century with respect for the past. It’s going to be a spectacular instrument when it’s finished.”

James Foxwell, the basilica’s music director and organist, said he is looking forward to playing it. 

“The current console is in bad shape,” Foxwell said. “It’s sort of a generic model.”

The work is expected to be done in mid-October so that the organ will be ready for the holidays. 

“It’s going to have a nice sound,” Foxwell said.

A fundraising campaign is underway, part of the Bold Faith, Bold City, which will raise $500,000 for a variety of projects.

A Christmas concert, Pipes of Praise, featuring tenor Emmet Cahill of Celtic Thunder, will be at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 26 at Florida Theatre. Tickets are $33, $43 and $53. Pianist Seamus Brett will accompany Cahill. The Bishop Kenny Chorus will also be featured.

A special pre-concert reception will be at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront Hotel. This event’s ticket is $250 and will include an opportunity to meet Emmet Cahill, premium theatre seating, heavy hors d’oeuvres and a great view of the Jacksonville Light Boat Parade.