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The Makeover Issue: Music

Memorial Church’s $6 million renovation and triple pipe-organ transplant

How Harvard extracted one pipe organ, installed two more, and let there be light.

C.B. FISK INC.

1967 Memorial Church installs a new organ from Charles B. Fisk, an alumnus who gave up working on the Manhattan Project to become a world-renowned organ maker in Gloucester. Fisk hopes to place his 11-ton Opus 46 upstairs in a gallery, but Harvard president Nathan Pusey won’t give up seating. The organ is installed on the ground floor, where it blocks a large Palladian window.

1970 The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, an organist himself, starts 41 years of service to Memorial Church. In the decades ahead, he’ll raise questions about the Opus 46: Did it really work with the church’s notoriously challenging acoustics? And why would you want to block morning light streaming into a church?

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2007 Working closely with Gund University Organist and Choirmaster Edward Elwyn Jones and consultant Jonathan Ambrosino, Gomes launches a $6 million restoration campaign that includes replacing the Opus 46 with a custom-made Fisk. “The good news is, we have all the money we need for a new organ,” Gomes intones from the pulpit on the church’s 75th anniversary. “The bad news is, it’s still in your pockets!”

May 2010 C.B. Fisk Inc. finds a good home for the Opus 46 in Austin’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which is now building a sanctuary for it. Fisk delicately extricates the instrument. And then there was light.

August 2010 Memorial Church still needs a second organ, one for its chapel. Ambrosino recalls a lovely antique Skinner he’d seen at a Christian Science church as a teen. Although the Connecticut congregation had relocated, he negotiates a sale with the help of the Yale University curators who had looked after its organ for 50 years. It is installed in Cambridge.  

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June 2011 Choir members greet the truck delivering Fisk’s new Opus 139, first with a hymn and then a work brigade. Services are canceled for the summer while Fisk technicians assemble the 16-ton instrument. Gomes, who died the previous February, never sees his dream completed.

September 2011 For the next seven months, Fisk experts work 10-hour days tuning more than 3,000 pipes. They range in length from a half inch to 32 feet. The front ones are sheathed in 22-karat gold leaf, per Gomes’s insistence.

April 2012 The Charles B. Fisk and Peter J. Gomes Memorial Organ, Opus 139, debuts on Easter Sunday. Organist Christian Lane plays 14 pieces (including two composed for the occasion). We’ve “fulfilled what other organ builders tried to do over the decades,” says Jones. “Having these two exquisite examples of American organ building really opens up how we make music in the church.”

Kimberly French is a writer in Middleborough. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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