Organ restoration pipes in new excitement at St. John’s

By Jessica Brodie

ROCK HILL—What started as a restoration project has become a full-scale catalyst for one United Methodist church in South Carolina, helping members honor their history while invigorating their future.

For more than a year, St. John’s UMC has been painstakingly restoring their 1920s-era pipe organ to its complete health and glory once again.

Now, if all goes according to plan, the fully restored organ should be ready to play by All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1.

Justin Addington, St. John’s director of music and organist, said the project has done much for the church. Not only has it opened people’s eyes to other parts of history in their worship space—from the damaged stained glass windows now getting their own restoration to the creation of an enormous church museum display with artifacts—but the church is also gearing up for a yearlong concert series designed to be an outreach to the community.

“The excitement surrounding the organ is powerful,” Addington said.

A symbolic project

Addington came to St. John’s in July 2017, and during his interview, the committee told him one of the goals of the church was to grow the music program. But during that interview, he noticed their organ—a huge, historical fixture in the sanctuary—was in horrible shape.

“If an instrument of such historical integrity was not functioning at full capacity—well, it’s symbolic,” Addington said.

Immediately, he knew the organ needed to be restored if he were to take the position. The committee agreed, and Addington was offered the job and the go-ahead to spearhead the organ restoration.

Within a month, an organ firm came out to do full assessment: R.A. Colby in Johnson City, Tennessee, a leader in the industry for restoring instruments. The committee voted unanimously to sign the contract, and work began this February.

Since then, work has been two-pronged: cleaning and repairing the existing instrument, as well as building a new console for where the organist sits. The console had to be completely replaced, all computerized with digital technology, but it is designed in a historic fashion.

This month, October, they will rewire the instrument—a must, Addington said, since all the 1920s wiring is still in it. They are also adding stops to the organ and some digital rather than real pipes because the organ chamber is full, so they must do it digitally to fill out the sounds of the instrument.

Then, on Nov. 1, the organ should be ready.

The restoration is costing the church $250,000.

That’s a good price, Addington said. “If we were to build it brand new, it would cost $1 million.”

Of that, members have already raised $170,000 of the cost. Even though they were approved for a loan, they have been able to make scheduled payments to the company without ever having to borrow money. The entire church has gotten involved in the fundraising for this project; Sunday school classes are taking up special collections each week, the Children's Choir has sold T-shirts and they are going to be selling custom Christmas ornaments this fall with an engraving of the organ on them. They have also applied for a $50,000 grant through the Cannon Foundation.

Former pastor at St. John’s, now-retired the Rev. Debra Quilling Smith, was a strong advocate of the organ restoration. At her retirement, Addington said, she even donated her love offering to the organ fund

“We have named one of the stops on the organ in her honor, engraved with her name,” Addington said.

The organ cost $7,900 in 1924.

“I am privileged to chair the committee at St. John’s Rock Hill dedicated to a restoration of our magnificent pipe organ, installed when our sanctuary was completed in 1925,” said Jim Hardin, chair of the Organ Restoration Committee. “My grandfather, Dr. Walter B. Roberts, was music director at St. Johns for over 35 years. He saved the organ from replacement in 1937, and our congregation continues this good work today.”

Adapting to change

What’s especially exciting for Addington and the committee is the reinvigoration of music and worship energy that has come along with the restoration. While Addington grew up with contemporary services, he is a firm believer that one of the most powerful parts of Christian church is congregational singing.

“Nothing pulls people together and their voices and unity of hearts and harmony than a straight-up good hymn, and there’s no instrument out there that can lead that kind of experience with authority and power and history than the organ,” he said. “The organ has been leading Christian songs of God for 500 years. There’s something mighty special about that.”

St. John’s started its contemporary service to reach out to young people in a high-energy way, and it has accomplished that, Addington said. Today, St. John’s has three services each Sunday: two traditional and one contemporary.

But traditional can be just as high-energy, he said—and it should be.

“The thing we are finding is the contemporary movement was really popular with young adults in 1980s and 1990s, and people are starting to crave something different,” Addington said, noting many are now seeking Taize or monastery-style services. “It just proves things are cyclical and come back around.”

But to me it’s important to know the organ been there through all of that, he said.

“People like to think the contemporary Christian movement is moving the organ out of church, but it’s not. It’s just needing to adapt.”

Big plans

Once the organ is complete, St. John’s is planning to hold a yearlong inaugural concert series.

They’ll start Jan. 13, 2019, at 5 p.m., which is 94 years to the day of when the organ was originally dedicated in 1925. Christopher Jacobson, organist at Duke Chapel, will dedicate it.

Then a series of concerts will follow every other month or so. First will be a formal organ dedication, then an event geared to children. They are also hoping to do a recital to feature all the former living organists of the church; there are about six of them.

In the fall, they are planning something special: a silent movie organ concert. Because it was built in the 1920s, the organ was built with a lot of features to accommodate silent movies, as that’s where the music for films in that period came from: the organist would play as the movie would run. As a fun way to honor that, next fall, St. John’s will have a theater organist do a program in which he will accompany a silent movie on the organ.

All of it is tremendously exciting to Addington, the committee and the rest of the church.

“I’m a sentimental person, and I’ve told the people at St. John’s there’s something very powerful about the fact that there could be a family in the sanctuary who’s having a baby baptized in that church and the organist is playing ‘Jesus Loves Me,’ and 75 years ago that same organ played the wedding march for their grandparents,” Addington said.

For more on the organ, including the dedication and other events, visit

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