New pipe organ installed at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary

Aaron Lambert

If a seminary’s primary role is to form the priests of tomorrow – a divine task – then it’s only fitting that the instrument used for adoration and worship during that formation be equally as divine in nature.

A brand-new pipe organ was installed at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in January, replacing the electric organ that’s been there for the past 20 years. The organ contains over 1,500 individual pipes that fill Christ the King Chapel with the sounds worthy of an angelic choir and was custom-made by Kegg Pipe Organ Builders based out of Hartsville, Ohio. The organ cost $500,000 to build and was funded entirely by private donors.

The electric organ was in dire need of replacement after a dead squirrel was discovered in its components and was causing all sorts of malfunctions.

Pipe organs are a much more practical instrument to have than an electric organ, said Mark Lawlor, associate professor at St. John Vianney. Pipe organs last at least 100 years as opposed to the typical 20-year lifespan of an electric organ.

“We’d be buying four electric organs for [what will last 100 years],” Lawlor said.

More than just practical, there is a distinct difference in the sound produced by a traditional pipe organ versus an electric organ. Electric organ sounds are produced digitally; the pipes on a pipe organ are produced organically with air, similar to the way a human voice speaks, and in the case of the Kegg organ at the seminary, it allows for a wide range of sonic dynamics that allow the faithful to enter into more ardent worship.

Mark Lawlor performs on the new pipe organ installed in Christ the King Chapel at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary during the blessing ceremony Feb. 13. (Photos by Andrew Wright)

“It surrounds you with the sound,” Lawlor said. “But as loud as it can be, it can also be so hush, and so angelically soft.”

In addition to the organ’s principal sound, its console contains a variety of different knobs that enable the player to produce a wide range of sounds that fall within the woodwind family of instruments, from a clarinet to a flute. However, the organ also features a trumpet and a brighter-sounding pontifical trumpet, which Lawlor says he only plays for Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Cardinal J. Francis Stafford.

The six-man crew from Kegg built the organ at their workshop in Ohio, then essentially disassembled it, brought it to the seminary and rebuilt it there. They spent two weeks voicing each pipe individually so they all sound even.

It truly is a sight – and sound – to behold.

“It’s custom-made for [Christ the King Chapel], and that’s where the artistry comes in,” Lawlor said. “The master builder was the one who did that. He has great ears, knows what will fit the room and he did it specifically to the men’s voices.”

Christ the King Chapel is utilized many times in the weekly activities of the seminary – from seminarian formation to permanent diaconate formation to various retreats and workshops – which means that the organ is also used a fair amount in any given week.

What’s exciting to me is if you were a priest and graduated from [St. Thomas Seminary] in the 1950s, you will hear some of the same sounds as the guys in 2050, because we’re still using that organ. We’re tying the whole institution together.”

“We use [the organ] three to four times per day,” Lawlor said.

The organ is an integral part not only to the seminary, but also to the Catholic Church as a whole. Along with the voice, the organ is the preferred instrument for liturgical music. The way an organ functions is congruent with how the human voice functions, and they complement each other perfectly, Lawlor said. Plus, where else do you find an organ besides a church?

“You don’t hear the organ anywhere else, and that’s what makes it special,” Lawlor added.

The original St. Thomas Seminary had a pipe organ made by Kilgin that was replaced with the electric organ in 1997, but many of the original pipes were still intact and were used to construct the new organ. This organ contains 900 new pipes constructed by Kegg, while around 600 of the pipes are from the original 1930s Kilgin organ – meaning some of the same sounds from the 1930s are still being echoed throughout the seminary today.

“What’s exciting to me is if you were a priest and graduated from [St. Thomas Seminary] in the 1950s, you will hear some of the same sounds as the guys in 2050, because we’re still using that organ,” Lawlor said. “We’re tying the whole institution together.”

COMING UP: Getting ready for Synod-2018

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The headline on the March 3 story at the CRUX website was certainly arresting — “Cardinal on charges of rigged synods: ‘There was no maneuvering!’” The cardinal in question was Lorenzo Baldisseri, secretary-general of the Synod of Bishops, and not only were his voluble comments striking, they were also a bit disconcerting. Did I simply imagine the uproar on the floor of the Synod on October 16, 2014, as bishop after bishop protested an interim report generated by Baldisseri and his colleague, Archbishop Bruno Forte, that did not reflect the discussions of the previous two weeks? Were the complaints about the suffocating Synod procedures Cardinal Baldisseri outlined prior to Synod-2015 an illusion? Didn’t thirteen cardinals write Pope Francis in the most respectful terms, suggesting alterations in those procedures to ensure the open discussion the Pope insisted he wanted?

But, hey, memory is a tricky thing, and this is the season of mercy, so let’s let bygones be bygones and concentrate now on Synod-2018, which will discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment. Those are very important topics. The Church in the United States has had some success addressing them, despite challenging cultural circumstances; so perhaps some American leaders in youth ministry and vocational discernment could be invited to Synod-2018 to enrich its discussion, on the Synod floor and off it (where is where most of the interesting conversations at these affairs take place).

Curtis Martin is the founder of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), which is arguably the most creative campus ministry initiative in the post-Vatican II Church. FOCUS sends recent college graduates back to campuses as missionaries and has had such success in the U.S. that FOCUS missionaries are now working in Europe. There’s a lot the bishops at Synod-2018 could learn from Mr. Martin’s experience.

Then there’s Anna Halpine, president of the World Youth Alliance: a network of pro-life young people all over the world, who witness to the joy of the Gospel and the Gospel of life in an extraordinary variety of social and cultural settings. WYA has also designed and deployed innovative educational programs and women’s health centers that, building out from the Church’s teaching on the inalienable dignity of the human person, offer life-affirming alternatives to the moral emptiness of too many elementary school curricula and the death-dealing work of Planned Parenthood on campuses. Surely there’s something to be shared at the Synod from this remarkable enterprise.

Bishop David Konderla of Tulsa was the director of campus ministry at Texas A&M for eleven years, where St. Mary’s Catholic Center has set the gold standard in traditional campus ministry and created a model for others to emulate. Over the past twenty years, Konderla and his predecessors have fostered more vocations to the priesthood and religious life than that school with the golden dome in northwest Indiana, while helping many Aggie men and women prepare for fruitful and faithful Catholic marriages. Bishop Konderla would make a very apt papal nominee to Synod-2018.

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, has taken up the mantle of the late Dr. Don Briel in creating a robust, integrated Catholic Studies program on his growing campus. Shea’s goal, like Briel’s, is to form mature young men and women intellectually, spiritually, and liturgically, so that they can be, in the twenty-first century, Pope Francis’s “Church permanently in mission.” He has things to say about how to do this, and Synod-2018 should hear them.

Then there is Father Thomas Joseph White, OP, a banjo-playing, bourbon-appreciating theologian of distinction who (with his Dominican brother, Father Dominic Legge) has created the Thomistic Institute, to bring serious Catholic ideas to prestigious universities across the U.S. The Institute’s lectures and seminars fill the intellectual vacuum evident on so many campuses today — the vacuum where thought about the deep truths inscribed in the world and in us used to be. Father White is being redeployed by his community to Rome this Fall, so he’ll be a #64 bus ride away from the Vatican. The Synod fathers should meet him, and perhaps he and Cardinal Baldisseri, an accomplished pianist, could jam.  

So by all means, let’s have “no maneuvering” at Synod-2018. But let’s also have some American expertise there, for the good of the whole Church.