STONINGTON — Alan Murchie sat down on the choir loft bench in Calvary Episcopal Church one morning last week.
“What’s your favorite Christmas carol?” he called down to the group of people milling about in the nave below.
As the stunning sounds of “O Holy Night,” filled the small church — inspiring each person to stop, listen, and look up — someone whispered, “I have chills.”
“Then the organ is doing its work,” responded Murchie, the church’s assistant rector and a versatile musician with an impressive pedigree.
The organ is the Chandler McIvor Memorial Organ, a more than half-million-dollar project that began as a gift and was blessed and dedicated earlier this month during a series of standing-room-only concerts with organist Joseph Ripka — the unanimous first-prize-winner of the 2008 Dublin International Organ competition — who served as Calvary’s organist and choirmaster for the last six-and-a-half years. It was under Ripka’s watch that the extraordinary organ was conceived, designed, and built.
The organ project began with a former member of the Calvary choir, Ripka said Thursday from his office in Phoenix, where he has been the director of music and organist at All Saints Episcopal Church and Day School since November, when he left Calvary for his new position.
A conversation with church member Alix McIvor Van Rees more than four years ago sparked the idea for a new organ, Ripka said.
“She and her husband, Neal, wanted to do something special for the church,” explained Ripka.
That inkling for something special turned into the building of a completely new, custom-built, 17-stop pipe organ designed specifically for the acoustics in the church. Once the initial decision was made to turn Van Rees’ gift into a new organ, other gifts followed, and the search for an organ-builder began.
Bill Rutherford of Stonington, the Organ Installation Committee chairman, said the committee “cast its net far and wide, nationally and internationally,” and selected, at last, a “made-in-the-USA” firm that had built more than 20 handcrafted organs throughout the country in addition to a new organ housed in the historic case of Handel’s home church, St. George’s, in London.
Richards, Fowkes & Co., builders of historical-style mechanical-action pipe organs, is based in Ooltewah, Tenn., just outside Chattanooga. The firm was founded in 1988 by Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes, with a committment to following traditional methods of organ-building. The Chandler McIvor Memorial Organ is made up of tens of thousands of parts, each one custom-made in Tennessee and then carefully trucked to Stonington, where the organ — “Richards, Fowkes & Co. Opus 23” — was rebuilt in Calvary’s choir loft.
“The company does everything,” said Ripka, who has made several visits to the Tennessee shop since the project began. “They are a fantastic group of artisans. Every piece was thought out. They took such care to create an organ unique to the space.”
Patrick Spiesser, who has been a master organ builder with the company for decades, was putting the final post-concert touches on the organ earlier this week before heading back to Tennessee.
“It has one thousand and eight pipes,” said Spiesser proudly. “That seems to be the thing everyone wants to know.”
“Patrick led the [rebuilding] effort,” said Rutherford. “Everything had to go in a sequence.”
“Patrick is brilliant,” said Ripka.
“The pipes were all hand-planed and molded by the builder,” said Rutherford, explaining that they had to be “voiced,” or adjusted to fit the space. Organ-voicers sat in various spots in the church to listen and make sure the sound was just right. “The most important stop is the space,” he said with a smile.
Murchie, the assistant rector, said the organ possesses an “incredible range,” from a warm orchestral sound to a classic flute to a string section to a “wonderfully majestic” trumpet sound.
“We are proud to have such an outstanding organ, built in a traditional way,” said the Rev. Dr. W. Alfred Tisdale Jr., the rector of the church known as the church by the sea. “It means so much to us to have a traditional tracking organ.”
“We are a church with a lot of boaters,” he said, looking heavenward to the church’s ceiling. “What we actually have here is a sailing ship turned upside down.”
The church, he said, was designed by the renowned architect Richard Upjohn, the same man who designed the entrances to Boston Common and worked on the alterations to the famed Trinity Church on Wall Street, and who was well-known for his Gothic Revival church architecture. Keeping the new addition to the church — the organ — true to the wooden boat and historical and natural themes was important to the church community.
“The goal was to make it look like it was always here,” Tisdale said. “I think they pulled it off.”
Van Rees, the lead donor of the organ project, said the organ was dedicated to her brother, Carlisle Chandler McIvor, mostly because he “enjoyed figuring out how things worked and teaching useful skills to others.”
Although her brother never actually played a musical instrument, McIvor said, “he would have jumped at the chance to study and understand an instrument as intricate as our new tracker organ,” she wrote in the concert program. “For this reason, we thought it most appropriate to dedicate this beautiful, complicated, great and noble organ to him.”
“It turned out to be such a successful project,” said Ripka. “It was so great to come back to play for the concert.”