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New life breathed into pipe organ

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The ‘glorious’ pipe organ is back at the Church of Our Lady of Refuge, and the angels are singing. The 74-year-old organ, built by the Kilgen Organ Company of St. Louis, Missouri, will be played for the first time in a decade at the church, located at 2020 Foster Avenue in Flatbush. “The pipe organ is an important part of the culture of the church, and a common part of the heritage. It’s an instrument that’s worthy and valuable. The church is very excited,” said Joe Vitacco, executive recruiter for Ajilon Finance CD company, who has volunteered his time and talent to fix the organ. This is why the upcoming February 3 mass at Our Lady of Refuge will go down as a day to remember for members of the church. Guests such as Jennifer Pascual, Music Director of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and Stephen Tharp, a renowned concert organist, will play a short organ recital beginning at 4:40 p.m. The University of Notre Dame’s Women’s Choir will also be singing the 5 p.m. mass, which will serve as a fund-raiser for the full repair of the organ. The instrument made its debut in 1933 as the present version of Our Lady of Refuge was breaking ground. Instead of a traditional rear gallery location, the organ’s chambers were installed in the tower and speak through stone grills in the nave. “The organ, for many years, was the voice that everyone attached their voice to. It was a voice to generations,” said Father Michael Perry, pastor of the church. The instrument has 1,803 pipes, from less than an inch to almost 18 feet long. All of them are enclosed out of sight in the church’s tower. The pipes speak on wind pressure provided by a 10-horsepower turbine in the basement and their volume is modifiable by two sets of giant movable shutters. However, deterioration with age and structural problems in the tower housing the organ have led to water damage, leaving the organ unusable. “Unlike electronic organs which have short life spans, pipe organs last a long time. But it has perishable parts which deteriorate with age,” said Vitacco. Vitacco describes his earlier years going to Our Lady of Refuge and his first experience hearing the sound of its pipe organ. “Our Lady of Refuge is very special to me. I first heard the pipe organ when I was two or three years old. It made a lasting impression on me,” he said. “When I came back years later, I was disheartened to see the condition of the organ.” According to Vitacco, the instrument is still in need of $200,000 worth in repairs and, at the present, is “being held together by a Band-aid.” “Joe has done a fantastic job in saying that he doesn’t want anything worse to happen to the organ. Most people never heard the organ played because it hasn’t been used for years,” said Perry. But according to him, the organ is not the only thing in need of repair. “First thing’s first, and the organ is not first priority,” he said. “We’ve got to fix the roof and walls surrounding the organ. The building costs a couple million dollars. The worst four-letter word is deferred maintenance,” he added. But behind every great leader is a great teacher. Jim Konzelman, a well respected organ-builder in NYC, has supervised Vitacco in their efforts to fully restore the instrument to its former glory. “Joe has done a beautiful job. The relay and switching system is very complex. It’s 1933 electrical equipment. We’ve been working on it for a couple of months to help this church out, and we got quite a bit of it playing again,” Konzelman said. Although the duo has nursed it back to life, Konzelman states that the organ will not last very long without additional repair. “Pipe organs are all different. There are no two alike. They have different personalities based on countries and places,” he said. “Music is a very spiritual thing, and I’ve always felt the organ is a window into heaven. It is a fascinating instrument that is very complex and interesting. I can’t think of a more fulfilling way to live.” For more information on the February 3 return of the pipe organ at Our Lady of Refuge, call (718) 434-2090.

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