Finding Its Voice: The Basilica Organ Nears Completion


Author: Video by Tony Fuller

Fanfare, please: Two months after its arrival on July 31, work on the Murdy Family Organ in Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart is reportedly way ahead of schedule.

When the last rank of the organ’s pipes is tuned and voiced; when the instrument’s tremulants and stabilizers are coolly governing wind supply to its five pipe divisions; when the electronic preset system is ready for Notre Dame’s small army of organists each to create their own stop combinations and explore the Murdy’s virtually infinite musical range; when the last of the interior lights are wired and the glory is ready for prime time, organ builder Paul Fritts’ work with his creation will come to an end. And the Murdy Organ will truly be one with Notre Dame.

Built for the ages and home to stay, the basilica’s grand, new mechanical action organ is just weeks away from completion. It will be the fulfillment, points out organ committee member Rudy Reyes Jr. ’03MTS, ’07M.A., of many years of dreaming, craftsmanship and hard work.

While its official debut is set for January 20, 2017 — in conjunction with the University’s observance of the Feast of Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross — Mass congregations have already heard it play. Bruce Shull of Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders says the Murdy accompanied the recessional hymn after Mass on September 11 and may have been played at Masses since.

Here, in brief, is a timeline of the basilica organ project:

1850s: The University’s original Sacred Heart Church, a relatively modest, wooden structure on the site of today’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, receives a small reed organ.

1865: Father Edward Sorin approves the replacement of the first instrument with a hand-pumped organ of 1,500 pipes.

1875: Organ builder Derrick and Felgemeker of Erie, Pennsylvania, installs a 2,000 pipe organ inside the new but still incomplete Sacred Heart Church.

1961: University President Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, CSC, approves a minor renovation to the Derrick and Felgemeker that adds some 300 pipes.

April 2, 1978: An organ gifted by Marjorie O’Malley and built by the Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland, Ohio, debuts at a dedication Mass celebrated by Father Hesburgh and a vespers recital performed by Professor Michael Schneider of Cologne, Germany.

Fall 1981: Professor Craig Cramer joins Notre Dame’s Department of Music with the charge from department chair Calvin Bower to build a proper organ performance program.

2004: Supported by another gift from O’Malley, Paul Fritts & Company Organ Builders of Tacoma, Washington, finishes work on a two-manual, 35-stop mechanical action organ, designed and built in the northern German tradition, and installs it inside the Reyes Organ and Choral Hall, one of five venues that comprise the new DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

Late 2006: Notre Dame’s Office of Campus Ministry forms a committee to explore the replacement of the basilica’s Holtkamp.

December 2006: Amidst a nationwide organ crawl to scout the handful of U.S. workshops capable of creating an organ suitable for the basilica, the committee travels to Columbus, Ohio, for the dedication of the new Fritts organ in Saint Joseph Cathedral. At three manuals, or keyboards, 66 stops and some 5,000 pipes, the organ is the largest the Fritts shop has created to date. “This is the one that sealed the deal,” committee member Dr. Andrew McShane ’93M.M. would later say of the decision to commission Fritts & Company a second time.

2008: The Great Recession hits university endowments and benefactions across the country, taking its toll on projects of all kinds. Notre Dame’s basilica organ project is no exception and the idea is tabled indefinitely.

February 2010: Dr. Gail Walton, the basilica’s director of music since 1988 and, with husband Craig Cramer, a leading member of the organ committee, dies after a long illness.

Fall 2010: University administration approves a plan to commission a new organ for the basilica and the search begins for a donor.

2012: Fritts takes the unprecedented step of beginning to design and to authorize pipe work before signing the contract with Notre Dame. Plans call for a four-manual instrument with 70 stops, 5,164 pipes and a case inspired by with casework inspired by Dutch baroque masterpieces. Built once again in the northern German tradition the organ will incorporate several ranks of pipes — such as French reeds and Spanish trumpets — that significantly broaden its power to support the full sacred repertoire. It is to be Paul Fritts & Company’s magnum opus.

December 2013: Work on the case begins in Tacoma.

Christmas 2013: The basilica closes after Mass to prepare for the first phase of the organ project, the replacement of the building’s tan carpeting with 25,000 textured, slate-colored porcelain tiles that immediately improve the church’s acoustics. The renovation takes 44 days to complete.

2014: Fritts delivers a third commissioned Notre Dame instrument — a small studio organ designed for a choir rehearsal room in Campus Ministry’s Coleman-Morse Hall named in Walton’s honor.

October 2015: Fritts loans Notre Dame a fourth organ, another studio piece he had built for a private residence, for use in the basilica once the Holtkamp is removed. One week later, during Fall Break, workers reinforce the basilica loft’s support columns with concrete and steel and pump eight cubic yards – some 32,000 pounds – of additional concrete through an access hole just south of the church’s front doors in order to strengthen support down to the foundation.

December 28, 2015: The basilica again closes for organ-related work. After Sunday Mass celebrating the Feast of the Holy Family, the Holtkamp organ plays its last song, “Silent Night.” Work begins the next morning to remove it. The pipes are donated to St. Pius X parish in Granger, Indiana, which will incorporate them into an organ commissioned for its new church. By the time students return from Winter Break in January, the choir loft is empty. During the year ahead, basilica choirs will sing from risers located next to the interim Fritts organ in the basilica’s west transept.

July 2016: Craftsmen at the Fritts shop begin the long work of disassembling the finished organ now named for the family of benefactors Wayne and Diana Murdy. Loaded on to a pair of tractor-trailers, the organ arrives at Notre Dame early on Sunday morning, July 31. The basilica closes once more and the work of reassembling the organ in its new home begins.

August 2016: Students and faculty returning to campus see the organ’s completed façade for the first time as Paul Fritts, Bruce Shull and Erik McLeod begin the long process of tuning and voicing the pipes and connecting the organ’s interior systems — primarily its key action, stop action, windworks and electrical wiring.

September 2016: On site, Fritts soon revises his original estimate for project completion from just-in-time-for-Christmas to Thanksgiving, but the final handover may happen even sooner.

January 20, 2017: The dedication Mass and evening recital will celebrate the Feast of Blessed Basil Moreau, founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. McShane, the basilica’s director of music and choirs, will play the organ at Mass and Cramer will perform the recital.

John Nagy ’00M.A.

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