150-Year-Old Church Fights to Keep Pipe Organ

A 100-year-old organ is the heart of a D.C. church that is struggling to keep it running

Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church in Foggy Bottom, the first African American Episcopal church in D.C., is 150 years old. The small congregation is fighting to save its 100-year-old organ -- an endeavor that has become a struggle for the church to afford.

The parishioners of the historical church have a growing concern for the raising price of keeping the iconic pipe organ in use.

Julius Tilghman is the Organist and Choirmaster of Saint Mary’s. As a 12-year-old, Tilghman learned to play the pipe organ by watching the organist play at his church in Baltimore. Having learned the piano at 4 years old, Tilghman would sneak up to the organ after services and practice playing until someone would chase him away for being too young.

“The following week, they asked me to substitute for the regular organist,” Tilghman laughed. At 13 years old, Tilghman was hooked, and was frequenting a local music store in Baltimore that had electric organs. He would practice for 30 minutes for 50 cents each session. Eventually, he was so good, the music store started using him to demonstrate how to play the organ.

Tilghman didn’t formally study the organ until he went to college, at which he had already been playing for over a decade. At Howard University, Tilghman accompanied now-famous opera singer and friend Jessye Norman, the Honorary Chair of Saint Mary’s for its 150th anniversary.

Having taught music for over 40 years, Tilghman is now retired and has made Saint Mary’s his home as the Organist and Choirmaster. A resident in Baltimore, Tilghman travels twice a week by train to the small church tucked inside this Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

“The organ is the king of instruments,” Tilghman said. With hundreds of pipes, the organ is able to imitate sounds such as flutes, trumpets, oboes and many more.

Saint Mary’s was built in 1887 and designed by James Renwick Jr., designer of the Smithsonian and The Renwick museum. It was the first African American Episcopal Church in Washington and was listed on the DC Inventory of Historic Sites in 1972.

The church features beautiful stained glass windows by Lorin of Chartres, France, and one that was designed by the Tiffany Studios.

But the pipe organ, dating back 100 years, is one of the most impressive features. Still used today, the 1,050 pipe organ requires a lot of maintenance.

Michael Hart is an Organ builder and has been in the business of restoring pipe organs for over 35 years.

As a child, Hart sat in the choir loft by the organ at his church and fell in love with the instrument. Fixing organs became a hobby that soon turned into a job working for a firm that serviced 500 organs in nine states.

“You need to have a mechanical inclination to do this work,” Hart said. With each of the 1,050 organ pipes containing a valve made of sheepskin leather, these valves deteriorate, requiring maintenance and tuning. A decorative wall hides hundreds of larger pipes, with a small portion visible in the church.

The Saint Mary’s organ is tuned twice a year and has a replacement value of about a half-million dollars, which is a hefty price for a small local parish.

But Hart believes that having an organ as part of the church service should be a priority. In his own parish, Hart hired a university-trained organist to accompany the church services.

“It made a huge difference in the music program. We have a huge choir now, and it really has become a wonderful arm of outreach,” Hart said.

Although pipe organs are expensive, Hart said they are a great addition. He noted that in D.C., the capital of the free world and an international city, there is only one full-time classical radio station. Hart believes that leaves it up to the churches to fill that classical influence.

“The commonwealth of the arts is the church,” Hart said. “The organ is a gift and statement of faith to future generations.”

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