Congregation at China Grove church moves new pipe organ into sanctuary

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 3, 2012

CHINA GROVE — Colleen Weant stood in the sanctuary of St. Mark’s Lutheran Church Sunday afternoon. A tiny woman, Weant, 85, marveled at what she saw.

“Today’s the first time I’ve seen it,” she said of the extensive renovation. “I was astonished. I wanted it to take my breath away, and it really does.”

The centerpiece of the 7-month-long renovation process is a new pipe organ, C.B. Fisk’s Opus 143, which was delivered Sunday morning and which the congregation unloaded after its morning service.

Four representatives from the organ company, based in Gloucester, Mass., were on hand to supervise the unloading. They’ll spend the next couple of weeks assembling the instrument. Then two-person teams will rotate through the sanctuary beginning in January for several months, tuning the organ and matching it to the acoustics of its new space.

The congregation’s members, including Weant, are eager hear what it’ll sound like.

“It’s just exquisite to me,” Weant said. “I can’t wait to get the organ and hear it.”

The project came about because of the gift of one member. Harold Menius, a longtime member of St. Mark’s who sang in the choir for many years, gave a bequest before his death in 2006 to be used primarily for a new organ. The congregation’s 1924 E.C. Malarkey organ had been rebuilt several times.

“It had served the church well,” said Elizabeth Staton, director of music.

She added, “This gift from Harold is not only for the church now, but for generations to come, and for the community.”

She and the organ team envision a series of concerts and other events taking place in the coming months. A dedicatory recital is planned for spring.

Dr. Vince Crist of Hickory was a consultant who suggested moving the organ to its new location, behind where the altar used to be, in the center of the chancel. That meant other changes must take place. Bill Burgin of Ramsay Burgin Smith Architects served as architect for the project.

The altar would now be freestanding, with the sacristy (preparation room for pastors and acolytes) moved from the left side of the chancel to the right, and accessible restrooms built just outside the sanctuary. In addition to that, the steps that went from the sanctuary floor to the chancel were removed. Now there’s only one step, and a new, curved communion rail means members can remain on the sanctuary floor to take communion. The triple-arch design on the railing matches that of the original pews.

The old, red carpet was also removed, revealing beautiful oak floors which have been refurbished. The result is a lighter, brighter space.

To be sure, it’s a lot of change, admitted The Rev. Dr. Keith Copeland, who has served the congregation since October 1 as interim pastor.

“That place does not look like it used to,” Copeland said of the sanctuary in his sermon yesterday morning. Nearly 100 people packed into the fellowship hall. Tables were set up in the back of the room for a light lunch before the work got under way.

He noted, “There is a rhythm that is still there. It’s been there through all the changes of the world. It is the rhythm of the kingdom. The rhythm of God is the rhythm of life. May this community see the light of Christ and the rhythm of God’s love, in all that we do, and in all that we are.”

Before members ventured out to the 18-wheeler, Andrew Gingery, C.B. Fisk’s project manager, shared a few interesting facts about the mechanical action organ. The St. Mark’s organ has 1,192 pipes, and was built by hand by some 25 craftspeople in a total of 12,000 person hours. It weighs 10 tons (the floor had to be especially reinforced), and is 19 feet high, 19 feet wide and 12 feet deep.

C.B. Fisk builds organs for churches, universities and concert halls all over the United States and overseas as well.

The 2-manual organ is a small one, Gingery conceded, but is not the smallest the company has built.

“There’s been quite a lovely transition in the sanctuary,” Gingery said. Other members of the Fisk team here now include Emily Pardoe, Dana Sigall and Jonas Berg.

“I want to congratulate you on a splendid renovation,” Gingery told the congregation after lunch. “I like the feel of the space. I can’t wait to put an organ in there. It’s going to be spectacular.”

Alex Reynolds and his family joined the church three years ago. Reynolds served on the organ team, along with Staton, Diana Pegram, Janette Bame, Pam Safrit, Don Hooks and the Rev. Greg Yeager, former pastor.

“It was daunting,” he said, “because change takes time, and it was a long process. It’s terribly exciting, also, because not many congregations get the opportunity to do what we have gotten the opportunity to do. It looks incredible. I’m excited about the organ, most I’m most excited because the sanctuary feels more accessible to me.”

With the last dessert plates cleared, it was time to get to work. Members unloaded padding that was placed over all the pews, then started bringing in boxes, parts of the organ and all manner of tools. The newly finished floors were covered with cardboard, upon which Gingery and the team had written in black marker what equipment went where.

“There are specific places where stuff goes,” Gingery said during his time of instruction. “There are some big pieces, but most are very manageable. Everyone can take part. You can tell your friends, ‘I was there when the organ came.’”

Gingery told the gathering that the maxim “Many hands make light work” would prove true for the afternoon, and it did.

It was a time for work, but it was also a time for the members to take pictures and videos, visit and reminisce about their church that was formed nearly 100 years ago.

Olivia Hanzlik, who just turned 4, carried in padding. Then she ran around the church yard with Ethan Tran, 5. Members carried in enormous shallow wooden boxes full of small pipes, all wrapped carefully in newspaper, then put on plastic gloves to carry in the larger pipes, one at a time.

There was much laughter and conversation and oohing and aahing over the sanctuary and questions of “Where does this go?” and “Can you hold up a minute?”

Nobody complained about going up and down the steps, or up and down the outside ramp, numerous times in the pleasant afternoon weather.

Reynolds noted, “There’s just something special about a pipe organ. We’ve been worshipping God for centuries with pipe organs and we’ll continue to worship God for centuries with them.”

The St. Mark’s congregation would agree.

Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.