Congregational hymn singing is the hallmark of worship at the traditional Westminster Presbyterian Church in America.
That’s why the Manheim Township congregation recently upgraded its 2006 Buch-Walker digital organ to a hybrid, with the addition of pipes from the previous organ.
“This organ has so much range of sound, from as soft as a whisper all the way to as fierce as something that would throw you to your knees,” says Frank Dodd, director of music and organist at the church, 2151 Oregon Pike.
That variety is partly what makes the sound so compelling, Dodd says.
“Some of its variety is at its core in part representative of God’s character, the tenderness of God, but also the justice and wrath of an all-consuming fire,” Dodd says. “I don’t see our organ as God, but the moods and sounds of the organ can reflect some of the attributes of the Creator.”
Westminster Presbyterian Church will rededicate the organ at a concert, “Praise Him with Pipes,” at 7 tonight. Registration is required to attend in person, and the performance will be livestreamed online.
The enhanced organ is located in the balcony of the sanctuary. With the addition of nine ranks of pipes, the organ now has a total of 109 ranks.
“I believe it’s the largest in the county,” Dodd says.
While he declined to say the cost of the project, he noted the cost for the upgrade was only a fraction of the cost of a new organ, which could be from $1 to $2.5 million.
“For us, investing in the organ makes so much sense because we’re investing in our congregation singing in worship,” Dodd says.
The pipes are hidden from view —tucked in a tall, dark room behind interior windows in the balcony — and range in size from eight feet to one inch.
Dodd says that if the organ were all pipes, the lowest sound would come from a 32-foot-long pipe.
“It shakes the whole balcony — you and the church building,” he says.
The upgrade includes what Dodd described as “some cool technology” that he never imagined possible. Because pitch is sensitive to temperature, the pipes have a sensor to correct it.
Westminster was built in 1970 with a different organ in a former sanctuary. The second organ, which included pipes, was bought in 1982 and remained in the former sanctuary until the space was converted to a classroom in 2017. The current sanctuary was built in 2006.
“From day one, the plan was to incorporate the pipes that sat in the old sanctuary into the new sanctuary,” Dodd said. “Like any project, you hope for the best, but you don’t know if it will turn out as you imagined. This actually exceeds what I hoped for.”
Dodd says the digital sounds, from speakers controlled by a computer board, are recorded from organs located around the world.
The project to upgrade the organ was set in motion before the coronavirus pandemic, and ran from April to the beginning of October. Because members were consistent in weekly giving, Dodd says, the church didn’t have to borrow to pay for the project.
“I’m incredibly thankful that we got through the pandemic,” Dodd says. “Members were so faithful in their week-to-week giving. We haven’t had to cut the budget”
Dodd has served the congregation for two years. The Rev. Chris Walker was named senior pastor earlier this year. He follows the Rev. Michael Rogers, senior pastor for 24 years and now pastor emeritus.
The church, with about 1,100 members, pivoted to livestream services from March to May and re-opened in June to a limited capacity of 425 worshippers.
The congregation worships in two Sunday morning services. Masks are required at the 8 a.m. service but are optional at the 11 a.m. service. Every other pew is roped off.
Organ playing is engrained in the congregation’s culture; there are more than 10 Westminster members who play or have played organ.
“I can go away and always know I have a capable substitute in the congregation, which is highly unusual,” Dodd says.
Nine organists will perform in the concert, including Patricia Bleecker, former Westminster Presbyterian Church director of music and organist, along with the current assistant organist, Jonathan Humbert, and the former assistant organist, Bernina Danielson.
Soprano soloist Carolyn McLain, a member of the congregation; a brass quintet and percussionists will perform with the organists.
Dodd said the evening will feature two hymns, both of which include the mention of organs: “New Songs of Celebration Render,” with the lyrics, “Trumpets and organs, set in motion such sounds as make the heavens ring”; and “Sing Praise to the Lord,” with “Loud organs, his glory forth tell in deep tone.”
“It’s going to be a party, a celebration and thanks to God,” Dodd says, “beginning with the dedication of the organ to the glory of God.”