St. Michael’s works to restore historic Kilgen organ

By Daniel P. Smith | Contributor
Sunday, March 27, 2011

Arising from the ashes of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871 and nearing its 140th year, St. Michael’s, 1633 N. Cleveland St., history is rich and varied, sharing the story of the city’s evolution from modest urban outpost to metropolitan wonder.

With that character and charm, however, came an aging physical plant, a reality St. Michael’s Redemptorist Father Richard Thibodeau could no longer escape.

“Like anything that’s 100 years old, St. Mike’s has its challenges,” Thibodeau said. “The church has endured a steady decline, but little was done because there wasn’t any money.”

In response, Thibodeau and his staff developed a $2 million comprehensive campaign centered around addressing the church’s structural issues, including the restoration of an 86-year-old Kilgen pipe organ, a find that lends to St. Michael’s historic allure as well as its spiritual celebrations.

Throughout the 19th and 20th Centuries, the Kilgen family, whose organ building roots stretch back to the 17th century, was among the principal suppliers of church organs in the United States. Today, St. Michael’s pipe organ is among the few remaining Kilgen organs in the Chicago area.

As St. Michael’s and Thibodeau began drafting plans for church repairs and renovations, the organ garnered as much attention as any physical asset.

“The folks at St. Michael’s felt the organ was so central to the celebration of our faith that we had to do what we could to keep that voice alive,” Thibodeau said.

While church leaders investigated purchasing a new organ, a buy that would have run upward of $1.5 million, the sensible and consensus decision was to restore the existing organ.

“From baptism to weddings, the organ has accompanied people through their lives and it’s one piece that makes St. Michael’s what it is. That’s precisely why we wanted to restore it to its full musical potential,” Thibodeau said.

The $500,000 organ restoration project claims three phases. The first two phases — restoring the left chamber and installing a new blower and console — are complete.

St. Michael’s is now targeting a goal of $180,000 to complete the final phase, restoring the organ’s right chamber.

To that end, St. Michael’s musical director Dr. Zvonimir Nagy created the Old Town Organ Vespers, a musical series designed to raise awareness about the parish’s organ restoration project while showcasing local musicians.

St. Michael’s hosted its first Vespers concert on March 5. About 200 guests enjoyed the Michigan Avenue Cantori and Nagy performing selections from Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. Nagy hopes the concerts help St. Michael’s reach its ambitious goal.

“It would be so sad to see this project go unfinished,” Nagy said. “The resonance and sound of the organ is spectacular, which is why I’m happy we chose to restore it and hopeful we can play it to full capacity soon.”

The next Vespers concert will be on May 7 at 7:30 p.m. and will feature a chamber music performance inspired by the mysteries of the rosary. Admission is a free-will offering and includes refreshments.

With the organ’s restoration, Thibodeau believes St. Michael’s will continue its legacy of creating an atmosphere of prayer and peace.

“Through world wars and crises of faith, the organ has been that constant that has touched our soul and stirred emotions,” Thibodeau said.