Bayonne’s church organs get some TLC

Organist returns to write about her hometown pipes

Murals embellished with gold hang over the organ at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.
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Murals embellished with gold hang over the organ at Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

The organ is little appreciated outside of churches, horror movies, and soap operas.

Bayonne is rich in one of those categories, and a former resident, pianist, and organist who now lives in Pennsylvania came back recently to write about some of the city’s historic church organs.

She dubbed her trip the “organ crawl,” and visited three churches: St. Vincent de Paul, St. Henry’s, and Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Sandra Paton is currently an organist and choir director at Grace Alsace UCC Church in Reading, Pa. Paton started playing the organ again in 2015 after playing at Trinity Cathedral in Trenton in the 1990s. After rediscovering her passion for organs, she returned to Bayonne with a friend and Bayonne native, Jim Konzelman, an organ builder.

“Some organs make you shove the music through. Others pull it out of you,” said Konzelman, who founded Konzelman Pipe Organs in Hoboken.

Paton, who holds a master’s degree in musicology from New York University, has written about the churches and their organs for a coffee table book yet to be published.

Held in esteem

Organists are treasured in the church community, and are usually listed right after the priest in the bulletins handed out at mass.

“It’s the organist who brings the people closer to God than the priest. People are singing, raising their voices, getting carried into the emotion,” said Paton, who likens the organ to an orchestra because of the many wind sounds it can create.

Paton said that an organist plays “voices,” and is responsible for delivering the tenor, soprano, alto, and bass components of a hymn. “A fine organist can move people. It’s like having an orchestra at your fingertips.”

Organs are large instruments with multiple manuals, which are the organ-equivalent of a keyboard. Though they can resemble a piano, organs are wind instruments. Pedals allow the player to allow air through a pipe. The sound is controlled by how much air is pushed through.

Nowadays, a low-voltage electric component pushes air through the pipe. In the early days of pipe organs, young boys would hide behind the organ to move around parts that would allow air to pass through.

What’s unique about an organ is that the room that houses the organ is, in many ways, part of the instrument. Its sound depends on the materials the church is made from, whether the room is lined with carpeting or tile, and the size of the room.

St. Vincent de Paul

Growing up in Bayonne, Paton attended St. Vincent de Paul Church and was baptized at St. Henry’s. She still marvels at the architecture of the these two structures.

“St. Vincent de Paul demands your immediate attention from the exterior,” Paton writes. “The granite exterior walls are accented beautifully by a red tile roof. Getting into the church requires some effort. A long and wide staircase extends along the front of the church. I was in grade school at St. Vinnie’s when the railings were installed following an unfortunate incident when a woman fell down the staircase.”

Paton said that the organ at “St. Vinnie’s” never met her musical expectations until she returned. Konzelman rescaled the organ, installed new chorus reeds, and adjusted the tonal balance of the flutes and mutations. He built the pedal organ using pipes donated by the Masonic Temple on Avenue C.

“Mesmerized by the beauty of the services, especially the solemn high funeral Masses, I attended Mass as often as possible,” Paton writes. “It was my retreat house. Unfortunately, St. Vinnie’s organ had never met my musical expectations, until I returned for the crawl.”

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

When Konzelman first repaired the organ at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, he described it as a “festival of dead notes, but the best [of the organs on our tour] in terms of tonal beauty and musical integrity.”

The organ required a complete re-leathering, a common repair in which the leather where the pipe meets a wooden casing is replaced.

St. Henry’s 

Konzelman’s father was an altar boy at St. Henry’s and had been a pillar of its community. For his father’s 90th birthday, Konzelman donated and installed a full rank of pipes to the church. His father gleefully played the organ, calling it the best birthday present ever.

Kozelman performed a partial re-leathering of that organ and replaced various other flutes and pipes.

Organ appreciation 

“A lot of the misconceptions about organs are associated with the player,” Paton said. “You get a little old lady there, and she’s going to play a hymn, and it isn’t going to be good. It’s pretty awful.”

It’s difficult for the lay listener to appreciate all that goes into an organ. The only way to appreciate the instrument is to hear and see it in person.

“It’s like if you’ve never heard an orchestra before, and you’re going to hear a bunch of instruments together, if you don’t know what that is, it’s not going to make sense to you,” Paton said. “You have to hear it. I would recommend the layperson ask for a tour of their church’s organ. If only the church had the organist up there demonstrating while [the audience] sat downstairs.”

Coming back to her hometown was the “most moving experience” of Paton’s life. “It was an incredible experience to be there and to think about my parents in town,” she said. “We had such a good time.”

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