The Peragallo Organ at St. Stephen's

Our current organ is one in a long line of instruments that have enhanced the music at St. Stephen’s in its 175-year history. We are not certain what instruments, if any, the church had in its earliest years, but it appears that, when the Gothic chancel addition was made in 1889, it included provision for an organ chamber, which is now where the choir sits. The console (the keyboards) would have likely been between the ornately-capitalized arch-pillars dividing the two vaults of the chancel. All that appears to remain of that instrument is a rank of wooden stopped pipes.

In the period up to the late 1940s we know that there was a pump organ (often known as a harmonium). This instrument (which still exists and is now in a private residence) was replaced by an early electronic instrument in the late 1940s as a memorial to those citizens of North Castle who gave their lives in the Second World War. This Hammond organ also had a special ‘tone room’ cut into the vaulted ceiling above the chancel. Although this has now been covered over, the room still exists!

By the late 1960s, this Hammond organ was showing its age and a campaign was started for a new instrument. The dedication and perseverance of St. Stephen’s congregation and its organist, Phyllis Pinto, saw the money raised to commission a brand-new pipe organ from the Casavant Frères Organ Co. in Sainte-Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada. This organ was inaugurated in 1969.

The new Casavant organ with the parish's St. Cecilia children's choir in the early 1970s

The new Casavant organ with the parish's St. Cecilia children's choir in the early 1970s

When St. Stephen’s was planning its major renovation of the sanctuary in 2015, it became clear that the organ would need to be dismantled for safekeeping. While that was being planned, investigations showed that it was in significant need of cleaning and new electrical components. Also, the way it was attached to the back wall had caused structural problems. Since it needed to be removed, taken apart, cleaned, overhauled, and given a new case, it made sense to ask a question which our Director of Music, James Turner, had posed some years before, “Do we want to consider upgrading the organ to make it more versatile?”

The Casavant organ, while of extremely high quality and a fine instrument, was rather limited in its capabilities. It had no swell box, and therefore no swell pedal (sometimes called an ‘expression pedal’, to increase or decrease the volume progressively) and no ‘pistons’, which are single finger-buttons which activate a pre-set combination of stops to produce particular sounds and volumes. Both of these aids are virtually standard on most organs, and allow a much greater selection of repertoire to be played.

The decision was made to start a capital campaign to upgrade the organ with these features, and to enlarge it with additional ‘ranks’ (a rank is set of pipes serving a particular stop).

We faced a choice: either do these enlargements with pipes, or create a hybrid instrument using both pipes and digital sampling. After consultation with several organ consultants, and organ building companies, we signed a contract with the Peragallo Pipe Organ Co. to create a new hybrid instrument which would use almost all of the original Casavant instrument, and retain the original overall appearance of the casework at the back of the church while addressing all of the technical needs, and the musical enhancements, using the sampling system developed by the Walker Technical Co.

Rector, Fr. Nils Chittenden and Director of Music, James Turner, on a visit to the Peragallo Pipe Organ Co. factory in Paterson, NJ to see the organ being built

Rector, Fr. Nils Chittenden and Director of Music, James Turner, on a visit to the Peragallo Pipe Organ Co. factory in Paterson, NJ to see the organ being built

The resulting instrument is extremely versatile and user-friendly, has outstandingly good tonal qualities and is, quite simply, a triumphant and resourceful marrying of old and new technologies into a breathtakingly stunning organ of remarkable breadth and depth. The skill of the Peragallo Pipe Organ Company in designing such a comprehensive instrument for such an intimate space is testimony to their pedigree as among America’s most accomplished organ builders, building, restoring and curating organs all around the United States, including at the famous St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Read the specification of the organ here.