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Alabama church replacing century-old pipe organ after fire

May 30, 2022 GMT

CULLMAN, Ala. (AP) — The yawning gap in the choir loft of Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church is a sight that hasn’t been seen in more than six decades, ever since the congregation acquired an Austin Opus 1029 pipe organ from a church in Atlanta in 1958.

Now, that organ is the subject of a capital campaign, begun in September 2021 when it was determined that safety concerns necessitated a replacement for the 101-year-old musical instrument.

“The current wiring is wrapped in cotton,” Keith Ellard, the church’s development director, said in early April. “We’ve had two or three instances with electrical issues that we have had to address before they became a fire hazard.”

Days later, Ellard’s warning and fundraising efforts would prove prescient when the organ caught fire on Palm Sunday, April 10, forcing its removal from the loft. By mid-May, with a signed contract in hand, a crew from the Hartford, Conn.-based Austin Organs, Inc., was in the Cullman church, removing dozens of organ pipes and other equipment in preparation for a new instrument.


Because building and installing a pipe organ will be a yearlong process — Sacred Heart hopes to have a new organ in place by May 2023 — Ellard said the decision was made to take advantage of the downtime to make much-needed renovations to the choir risers, duct work and aged wiring.

Today, the choir loft is gutted as work proceeds, with salvaged pipes and other components filling nooks and crannies and even part of the nave throughout the church. It’s an emptiness that belies the optimism, hope and anticipation that Ellard said fills the entire parish community as it works toward completion of the nearly $800,000 project.

“We’ve talked to Austin about our goal, and they said it’s reasonable we could have a dedication service in conjunction with Mother’s Day,” Ellard said. “That would be really nice.”