For more than a century, an elegant stone church has stood atop a small grassy hill in Gilbertville, a quaint village in Central Massachusetts. But for much of the past five years, that church has been cloaked in silence, its majestic pipe organ unused.
That will change on April 16, when the organ thunders back to life, glorious music emanating from its 663 pipes. The occasion is a concert presented as part of “Let Joy Resound,” a two-day festival celebrating two historic pipe organs in Gilbertville and Ashburnham. The concert will be presented by the Friends of the Stone Church, a local nonprofit that’s trying to preserve the historic church, as well as the organ that has been there since it opened in 1874.
The concert will be the first held at the church since the building was shuttered in 2012. Thanks to Friends’ efforts, much-needed restoration was completed — the slate roof has been fixed, asbestos has been removed, new boilers have been installed — so that the church could be reopened.
Christopher Greenleaf, the Rhode Island-based classical recording engineer who conceived “Let Joy Resound” last fall, described Gilbertville as a “time capsule,” and the concert as “a chance to hear sounds that our great-grandparents heard.”
The Trinitarian Congregational Church has long been a centerpiece of Gilbertville, a 19th-century mill village that is actually part of Hardwick, a town (pop. 2,990) on the western border of Worcester County.
Passing through Gilbertville is like traveling back into time. Walk down Main Street past an old railroad depot (now home to a cute cafe, the Whistle Stop) and turn onto Bridge Street, and you can cross a wooden covered bridge spanning the Ware River. It all looks something like a scene from an old New England postcard.
The stone church is perched atop a grassy hill on Main, between the library and the town hall. Those structures, along with almost everything else in this village, were built by George H. Gilbert, who owned the large textile mills along the river. To accommodate the manpower his factories required, his company built tenement housing, along with stores, schools, and other amenities, including the scenic church.
“The building has this warmth and beauty,” said Mary Warbasse, the Friends of the Stone Church clerk. “It’s been a sacred space for many years.”
To the Friends, the church is more than just a cherished landmark. “This defines the community,” she said.
The Gothic-style church was designed by Elbridge Boyden, the same architect who designed Mechanics Hall in Worcester. Its foundation was laid in 1872; the building’s dedication followed in 1874. The Gilbert family provided the church’s furnishings, including its pipe organ: an imposing tracker instrument (Opus 430) with a three-section facade that contains 27 golden pipes. It’s one of 860 organs built from 1844 to 1898 by Johnson & Son, a prominent builder based in Westfield.
What makes the instrument special is that it’s largely intact in its original condition. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Peter Edwin Krasinski, dean of the Boston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, walked up the spiral staircase to the church’s loft and sat before the console. He pulled one out one of the knobs known as a stop — source of the phrase “pulling out all the stops,” he noted.
“It is its own instrument,” Krasinski said. “It’s not been messed with. All the pipes are speaking the way they did originally.”
He pressed down a key. The organ bellowed a deep tone in response.
“This has been making this sound since 1874,” he said.
The first time Donald Boothma heard the Gilbertville organ was in 1983. A professional singer newly relocated to Hardwick from Chevy Chase, Md., he was on an “organ crawl” sponsored by the American Guild of Organists. Of all the sounds he heard that day, the Gilbertville organ stood out.
“It’s an interesting sound, it’s a unique sound,” Boothman said. “It’s from a certain period of organ building.”
Inspired, Boothman recruited professional organists to start playing the instrument. Over 21 years, he produced 62 events — known as the Friends of the Gilbertville Organ or “FOGO” concerts — at the church. Proceeds from those concerts paid for the organ’s maintenance.
The 62nd concert, in October 2011, turned out to be the last, Boothman said. The church,, whose congregation had dwindled to a handful of people, couldn’t afford maintenance and repairs. The building had to be closed.
One morning in spring 2014, over breakfast at the Whistle Stop, Boothman, his wife, Kaye, and Mary and Phillip Warbasse looked out the window at the shuttered church, and decided to do something about it.
They talked to people in the community and, with the assistance of a Gilbertville attorney established Friends of the Stone Church. The group was awarded a $50,000 emergency grant from the Massachusetts Preservation Projects Fund in 2015, and raised an additional $45,000, plus $7,000 in donated services, to help stabilize the church.
They hope to raise more with this weekend’s events, which start on Saturday at 2 p.m. with a lecture on the Gilbertville organ as well as another historic instrument at Ashburnham Community Church, a little more than 30 miles away. At 4 p.m., Krasinski will play the first of two concerts, making the stone church resound anew with the sounds of Bach, Mendelssohn, and more. Boothman, too, will raise his voice, one of several guest musicians on hand to celebrate an achievement of note.
‘LET JOY RESOUND’
At Gilbertville Stone Church, 283 Main Street, Gilbertville. Tickets: $35 concert, $10 lecture, $60 festival pass. Additional events will be held on April 17 at Ashburnham Community Church, 84 Main Street, Ashburnham. www.friendsofthestonechurch.org
A previous headline to this story misspelled the name of the town. It is Gilbertville.