The pipe organ at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Kingston, Ont. Photo courtesy Jeffrey Moellman

This is no pipe dream

  • May 22, 2019

Even a parishioner listening closely during Mass would not know the meticulous care that Jeffrey Moellman brings to every note he plays on the organ at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral. 

This 114-year-old pipe organ in Kingston, Ont., can still play heavenly music, but it has also seen better days. 

Before Christmas, two pieces broke off, “So I had two sets of pipes that I was not able to use but I was planning to. The instrument is just becoming unreliable,” said Moellman, the cathedral’s organist and music director since 2017. 

“But all of this is something I would notice or maybe my choir notices when I make a funny face when I hear something is not right but the average person in the congregation may think that the organ plays loudly and don’t hear any major problem with it.”

St. Mary’s organ has 53 ranks of 2,798 pipes but Moellman is only able to use two-thirds of them because of broken stops or valves. There is a whole repertoire that Moellman has had to shelve for the music ministry because the melody contains notes that he wouldn’t be able to play. 

But there is a plan to bring the organ back to its former glory. St. Mary’s is hosting a concert on May 26 to help raise money for its restoration. Different groups in the cathedral’s music ministry will perform, including the Cantors of the Cathedral Choir and the Cathedral Youth Singers. 

“The organ serves as the backbone for the whole music ministry,” said Moellman. “When you sit in church, you’re actually sitting inside of the instrument because the room becomes part of the instrument.”

Moellman said organs are installed and designed to complement the specific acoustics of the room it is in. Because of this, each organ is one-of-a-kind.

St. Mary’s organ was donated and installed in 1905 by a well-known Canadian organ-building firm, Karn-Warren. The firm is known to have installed many notable organs around the country, including at St. James Anglican Cathedral in Toronto and Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal. 

Construction began on St. Mary’s in 1842 and it officially opened on Oct. 4, 1848. The building was enlarged in 1889, 16 years before the organ dominated the gallery on the cathedral’s south wall. The organ remained relatively unchanged until it was restored for $90,000 in the mid-1970s by the Kingston firm of Frederick Wm. Knapton and Son. 

Moellman said the estimate for a full organ restoration today ranges from several hundred thousand dollars to about $1.2 million. Right now, the priority is to refurbish and upgrade the main keyboard console. He also wants to repair any broken valves for the stops and the pipes to ensure proper airflow within the instrument. In total, these repairs are estimated to cost anywhere from $80,000 to $200,000. 

The organ restoration will be a long-term project and Moellman said there are still further conversations to be had with different organ builders on what the most cost-effective plan will be for the cathedral. 

“Any organ that is old is going to, at some point, require an investment and what we’re trying to do right now is to see how much of the instrument is worth repairing, what parts need to be replaced,” said Moellman. “The way that we’re looking to keep as much of the instrument as we can is just kind of a way of paying tribute to the people who came before us who had this idea that the church needed this instrument to express beauty in our worship.”

Moellman, 39, began playing the organ when he was eight or nine years old in Independence, Ky. His parish’s local organist taught him how to play and even allowed him to occasionally play during Mass. When he was 12, he joined the adult choir and played at some weekend Masses.

When Moellman entered high school, he became an organist for the diocesan cathedral which was next door to his school. Though his first degree at Thomas More University was for Computer Information Systems with a minor in Business, he returned to his true passion and studied Organ Performance at the Cleveland Institute of Music. He also has a master’s degree in Choral Conducting from Kent State University. 

It was in Cleveland that he met his wife, Caroline Bourque Moellman, who is a professional violinist. Together, they have four musically-talented children. 

“This is something that I often tell people. Because I was needed in the music ministry, when maybe in high school, I had not been as interested in going to church, I still had a reason that I enjoyed being there,” he said.

Before bringing his talents to St. Mary’s Cathedral, he taught choral workshops and master classes at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy (now College) in Barry’s Bay, Ont. He was music director and organist at Church of the Guardian Angels in Orillia, Ont., starting in 2010 and founded Chamber Music Orillia in 2011. 

“Ultimately, the organ is a very technical instrument but really it helps us to express our faith. It helps us to worship and it helps our music ministry to lead our congregation in worship, both our parish and our whole diocese as the mother Church of the diocese.”

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