Fr. Jean-Pierre Couturier, left, was instrumental in saving this pipe organ and helping find it a new home at Montreal’s Sainte-Catherine-de-Sienne Parish. He is joined at its unveiling by technician Karl Raudsepp, Geneviève Soly, Karl Wilhelm, who built the organ, and Aldéo Jean, organist at its previous home, Très-Saint-Rédempteur. Photo courtesy Fr. Jean-Pierre Couturier

Persistence grants pipe organ a new life

  • December 6, 2023

A pipe organ made by lauded Quebec organ builder Karl Wilhelm has found a new home in Sainte-Catherine-de-Sienne, a small, neighbourhood parish church in Montreal.

Pastor Fr. Jean-Pierre Couturier was under orders from a “very persistent” woman to save the organ.

Until recently, the Italian-style, mechanical-action organ made in 1992 was housed at Très-Saint-Rédempteur Church in Montreal’s east end. Madame Françoise Blanchette had once regularly practiced on the instrument.

When the church was closed in 2019, Blanchette told Couturier, “Father, do something about that organ!”

Couturier followed her orders.

“To make an organ live, you need somebody taking care of it, and I thought I was the guy to be able to do it,” Couturier told The Catholic Register.

In the press Couturier is known as the “cobbler priest” because he spends his day off collecting and repairing shoes for the homeless. But his professional interests and background are musical. For over 40 years, Couturier has been active as both a performer and administrator in the classical music scene in Quebec. His musical roots began with the piano and harpsichord, and later Couturier trained as a vocalist and organist.

A founding member and twice president of LAUDEM, a Canadian association of liturgical musicians, Couturier was the administrative director of the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal before entering the seminary in 1985.

The connections Couturier made over those years proved crucial in realizing his latest project.

“I was highly interested in this organ, but it has been months that I was trying to get attention on it and make sure something happens,” he said.

Aldéo Jean, the organist at Très-Saint-Rédempteur, had originally wanted to take the organ with him.

“Aldéo had the organ for 19 years and he was one of those who wanted the organ,” said Couturier. “But he couldn’t take it because the church where he is doesn’t have the acoustics or the room. It would have been a waste.”

Couturier needed to convince the Archdiocese of Montreal that Ste. Catherine was the appropriate location for the organ.

After receiving episcopal permission, he sent fundraising letters to “everyone I knew” in hopes of raising the $45,000 necessary to dismantle, reassemble and harmonize the instrument.

Faced with a hard deadline of July 1 for the removal of the organ after the building’s sale in 2023, Couturier ended up fronting some of the money himself.

The “why” behind all the money and effort is answered by the potential Couturier sees for the development of a culture and community around the organ.

“The idea of having this organ here is that this place becomes alive with more activities, a cultural place,” said Couturier.

“I even have hopes that organists would be interested to come and teach here. The whole idea is that there are very few people studying organ and getting involved in the beauty of the liturgy of the Catholic Church. That is one of the reasons I got involved in this project.”

That vision is already being realized.

On Nov. 26, in the presence of the organ builder Wilhelm and Karl Raudsepp, the technician responsible for accommodating the instrument to its new home, a celebratory concert was held at the church.

A week later a brass quintet performed and on Dec. 8 there was to be a participatory rendering of Handel’s Messiah.

“Choirs and organists from all over are expressing interest in coming to our little church,” said Couturier.

Ste. Catherine is a small parish that serves the French, Italian and African-immigrant population of the Montreal neighbourhood of Notre-Dame-de-Grace.

“We, of course, use the organ for our Sunday Masses. The organ is in the west transept and the choir sings across in the east transept. The parishioners are happy,” said Couturier.

The organ is the work of German-trained Wilhelm, who came to Canada in 1960 to work at Casavant Frères, a Quebec company that has been building organs since 1879.

Wilhelm set up his own business in 1966 and his instruments, known for their “very precise and light suspended mechanics,” can be found in churches, concert halls and music schools throughout North America.

“The organ brings a very high beauty to our church,” said Couturier.

Fundraising for the organ’s re-settlement to Ste. Catherine Church continues.

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