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Quebec church organ gets new life across Atlantic

Jacquelin Rochette (L ), Artistic director and Denis Blain, technical director at Casavant Freres pose with the console and boxes containing the rest of a pipe organ removed from Saint Charles church of Limoilou, in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec May 1, 2014. Parishes in Quebec are shutting their churches and ending up with valuable pipe organs they're unable to maintain. One such organ, removed Monday from the St. Charles church in Quebec City, has been sold to a church in Norway.

Christinne Muschi/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and

For close to a century, the mighty organ at Saint Charles de Limoilou Church in Quebec City stirred the faithful with sounds so rich and powerful, they helped make Sunday mass a moving experience. Today, the organ is part of a moving experience again – all the way to Norway.

Saint Charles's 3,000-pipe Casavant organ, a musical jewel that once played to packed pews in one of the most religiously devout corners of the world, has been dismantled piece by piece, its fate a symbol of the collapse of religious practice in Quebec.

"The organ had been silent for years and there was no one in a position to save it," said Rémy Gagnon, co-ordinator of religious heritage at the Archdiocese of Quebec City. "It needed major repairs and there was no money anywhere."

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So the province with a trove of church instruments essentially turned into an organ donor. The 1918 Casavant found a taker in a Catholic congregation in Bergen, Norway, whose members travelled to Quebec last summer and decided they liked what they heard.

Unlike Saint Charles, the masses at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Bergen are filled to capacity with worshippers on Sundays, most of them immigrants from Poland, Sri Lanka, Vietnam and 80 other nations.

"We are doing something we have never done before in Norway, taking an old instrument from the other side of the Atlantic," church organist Amund Dahlen said from Bergen on Monday. "We found the sound wide and warm and typical of the French sound. It has mystique, and in the Catholic Church, we need magic and mystique."

The Norwegians are paying Casavant far less than what the organ would cost new, which is more than $1.5-million. Once the deal concluded, the logistical challenge began: how to transport an historic instrument that weighs 10 tons, contains tens of thousands of parts, and stands the size of a two-storey home. They call it the King of Instruments for a reason.

It took four men three weeks to dismantle the Saint Charles organ. Last week, the last pieces of the musical behemoth arrived in a tractor-trailer at the instrument's original home, the renowned Casavant Frères in Saint-Hyacinthe, the same spot where the company was founded by two Quebec brothers in 1879. Tin and lead organ pipes stretching 16 feet, pedalboards, consoles and other components sat in an enormous loading-dock warehouse, in crates piled to the ceiling amid a smell of wood and glue.

Each item, down to pencil-thin pipes, will be cleaned and refurbished before continuing the journey to Scandinavia next year.

"It's true, Quebec is losing something," said Jacquelin Rochette, artistic director at Casavant. "But we're also giving an organ a new life. The beauty is to see a tradition passed on elsewhere in the world."

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Casavant Frères is a world leader in organ making. When it delivered the organ to the Saint Charles Church at the end of the First World War, the company was churning out about one organ a week, mostly for Quebec churches. Nowadays its largest orders are going to a cathedral in Beijing, whose organ was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and to St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto. The Saint Charles organ was No. 817 for Casavant. Now the company is turning out No. 3908, and it's headed to Seoul.

While most of Quebec's church organs remain in the province, many have gone mute in the wave of church closures that rolled over the province in recent decades. They're gathering dust.

"There are many, many instruments in peril in Quebec because so many churches are closing. And it's going to get worse," said Christopher Jackson, a music professor at Concordia University in Montreal who sits on Quebec's religious-heritage council. "It's a shame to lose any of them. But there's no way to keep them all."

Some end up back in the hands of Casavant, whose skills as musical matchmakers have sent Quebec church organs to new homes in such places as Adelaide, Australia, and Dallas. In that sense, the story of Saint Charles's organ has a happy ending, giving a used instrument a new home and rediscovered voice. Aside from church services, the Casavant will be used to give music lessons, Mr. Dahlen said. (Parish administrators in Quebec City received a symbolic sum of $10,000 for it, which won't even cover half of the church's heating and maintenance costs for one year.)

Mr. Rochette, a trained organist, has played the Saint Charles organ inside the shuttered church, which closed in 2012 and is up for sale. He describes its sound as "beautiful, rich, ample and generous." Once restored, the instrument that played countless wedding marches, funeral dirges and midnight mass Christmas carols to Quebec churchgoers will be packed up and shipped by container to Norway. For believers in second chances, it's more than a pipe dream.

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About the Author

Ingrid Peritz has been a Montreal-based correspondent for The Globe and Mail since 1998. Her reporting on the plight of Canadians suffering from the damaging effects of the drug thalidomide helped victims obtain federal compensation and earned The Globe and Mail a National Newspaper Award, Canadian Journalism Foundation award, and the Michener Award for public service. More


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