A small Presbyterian congregation in Northwest Washington recently spent six months refurbishing their 50-year-old Skinner pipe organ, a project that took the 375 members more than 3,000 hours and saved the church about $55,000.
Beyond the financial saving, the unusual project helped restore the congregation's sense of mission and bridged a gap between old and young members, said the Rev. William Thompson, associate pastor of the Church of the Pilgrims, and other members of the congregation.
The repair project became an "intergenerational experience for the congregation. It had a very healing, binding-together type of effect," said Thompson.
"The congregation, they really know each other differently now than they did before," said Jim Ayers, a long-time member of the church at 22nd and P streets. He went on to describe how two church members who met while repairing the historic pipe organ were later married.
Helen Self, who spent more than 40 hours working on the instrument, said of the repair work, "I think it made the church feel kind of proud of itself." o
With the task now completed, organist Eileen Morris Guenther will help rededicate the organ in a ceremony Sunday at 4 p.m. Included will be music played at the original dedication ceremony in 1930.
The job, which was done under the supervision of Harrisonburg, Va., organ repairman Arthur Douglass Jr., required work shifts that began at 7:30 a.m. and lasted until late at night. The pipe organ was the last one designed by Boston organ builder Ernest M. Skinner.
Children and senior citizens helped with the work, which "was both tedious and dirty," Self said. Huge pipes had to be removed from the cramped rooms where they are housed and cleaned and some 2,500 decayed leather pads cut away from the pipes and replaced.
Families coordinated baby-sitting chores to work on the organ along with people outside the church membership. Ruth McPherson and Charter Wells, who met while working on the Skinner, were married Valentine's Day.
The decision to undertake the laborious task on what Thompson described as a "wheezing, hissing, asthmatic and arthritic" instrument, was a compromise between members who wanted to preserve the historic organ and those who preferred to use the church's money for community-oriented projects.
"In the last 25 years this congregation has undergone a considerable metamorphosis in its concept of its ministry," Thompson explained. "A number of the newer members, while they appreciated the organ, were raising serious questions about the validity of borrowing $75,000 to do something which would essentially serve ourselves."
The catalyst for the project was Douglass, who convinced many skeptics in the congregation that they could do most of the enormous job themselves for less than $20,000. The final tally will be about $19,000, Thompson said. f
The minister described the repairman as "a very loving, pastoring kind of person," who attracted some of the church's elderly members who had come to feel disenfranchised from the new, younger members.
Douglass stayed at the church five days a week and commuted back to his home on weekends so that he could teach the laymen the painstaking work. Two years ago, he supervised a similar, but smaller, project at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Alexandria.
Last summer's gas crisis helped, keeping many vacationers at home. "One woman gave a whole week of her vacation," said Thompson.
The organ has now been restored "without sacrificing our own lifestyle and our sense of mission," he said. This summer, 25 church members will spend time working on a mission in Haiti with funds the church saved from the organ project.
The pastor added, "It kind of kept the faith and our image of what the church community ought to be like."