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James Edwards is the organist at St. Paul United Methodist Church, the oldest continuously open black church in San Antonio. He’s played the pipe organ there for three years now and said the 80-year-old instrument is ready for a tune-up.
The church is trying to raise $80,000 to not only restore the organ, but also to add features such as another rank – a set of pipes – to the instrument.
Elsworth Rogers, a former organist at St. Paul, said the organ needed some maintenance even when he was playing. Rogers played the organ at St. Paul from 1986 to 2008 (and from 1963 until 1971), he said.
The pipe organ, often referred to as “the king of instruments,” is a commanding instrument to play, Edwards said.
“It’s feeling the sub-contra tones when you step on a pedal and the tone is so low that it kind of causes your innards to vibrate,” Edwards said. “Or the pitch from a 16-foot-pipe … When it whistles, when it blows, you have to stand still. Or when the high pitches are so high that you just imagine the sound bleeds through the ceiling and goes right on into the universe.”
The organ at St. Paul United Methodist is a Möller pipe organ, built by a company that has since gone out of business. The church has asked a regional organ repair company for a quote on restoration costs, but has yet to hear back or have the instrument inspected, St. Paul Rev. James Amerson said.
The congregation bought the organ for $2,250 in 1939, he added.
“In 1939, the congregation bought it for the future,” he said. “Möller is out of business, but this organ still plays.”
The organ needs to be restored for future generations, Amerson said. He estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have heard the organ’s peals over the years. He reminisced about how many people were eager to join the choir or the music program at St. Paul in the 1960s and 1970s when he was a child. Fewer people volunteer now, he said.
“That’s why we want to see if we can raise a generation of children with an appreciation for music,” Amerson said.
He hopes to use some of the money raised to start a children’s music program next spring, to foster a love and interest for music in the younger generation. Edwards said he would like to see more organ recitals in the church’s future after the instrument is restored.
“My dream was to expand [the organ] so that we could [not only] have music classes in the community to expand their world of music, but also to have at least once a month noon-day organ recitals … and put that on the list of activities in the city of San Antonio,” he said.
Edwards teaches piano, organ, voice, and composition outside of his church duties and has been teaching for more than 40 years. He speaks warmly of children curious about the organ asking about the pedals and shows them how he works them with his feet. And, though fewer people study the art of the organ than when he first took up music, he’s confident the music will survive.
The church and the organ’s historic value must be considered as well, Rogers said. The church was founded in 1866, and moved from its original location in St. Paul Square to its current home on Center Street in 1922.
“St. Paul is the oldest black historical church in the city,” he said. “And the building itself has a lot of history behind it. There’s a lot of historical meaning behind the organ and church. It definitely enhances the experience in the church when someone is actually playing it.”
The church is hosting a concert celebrating the organ’s 80th year on Sunday evening, from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m., free for all to enjoy. The concert is free, but donations can be made to the organ restoration at paypal.me/spumcsa.