LINWOOD — Our Lady of Sorrows Church is a true house of God — but up in the balcony, God is in the details.
Stephen Beddia and his crew of loyal assistants have spent the past three years meticulously rebuilding, step by intricate step, a church pipe organ that was relocated in its entirety from Philadelphia — and they are very close to completion.
“They shared my idea to bring this big, big instrument back to life,” said Beddia, surrounded by his busy volunteers. “They rescued this instrument. It would have been vandalized or scrapped for metal. Now, it’s playing in a vibrant church.”
A visitor to the Our Lady of Sorrows balcony enters into a kind of steampunk fantasyland, with rows upon rows of pipes sprouting from wood casings as if they grew from seeds scattered by the wind.
“The organ,” explained Beddia, “is a very complex thing.”
Beddia, of Egg Harbor Township, has more experience than most in all things organic, for lack of a better word — he used to build pipe organs full-time in the ’70s and ’80s before becoming a teacher at the township’s Fernwood Avenue Middle School.
“The pipe organ is the loudest, most powerful instrument in the world,” he said. “One person can control a whole symphony of sound. Each pipe acts as its own amplifier and speaker. You can’t really duplicate it electronically.”
An electronic organ — a “really bad” electronic organ, as Beddia described it — was what Our Lady of Sorrows used to have. So he made it his mission to find a vintage replacement through his contacts in Philadelphia.
Soon, he found a candidate — an organ built in 1952 around an original Aeolian Skinner console from 1932, which had been located at the Messiah Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. When that congregation moved out and an African-American Pentecostal congregation moved in — a congregation whose liturgical traditions were more gospel-oriented — an opportunity beckoned.
“All of us went over to (Philadelphia) and pulled out everything,” Beddia said. “Every pipe had to be taken out systematically and carefully put in a crate.”
The next step — a suspicious-looking procession back to New Jersey.
“There was my Suburban, Bob (Mika’s) van, a whole caravan of trucks and trailers and vans,” said Beddia’s son, Jason, of Buena. “We tied the pipes up on our rooftops. We got some weird looks on the way home.”
Or, as Charlie McFadden, of Linwood, described it: “We looked like missile deliverers.”
Then came the hard part, the restoring and reassembling of all those intricate, decades-old pieces, one by one.
“There are thousands of pieces that go into a pipe organ,” Beddia said. “All the operating pipes had to be completely rebuilt and rewired. Inside the windchest, all the leather valves that operate the pipes — controlled by the console over here — we’ve had to releather every one.”
“We don’t know what we’re doing,” joked volunteer Maryann Thomas, of Linwood. “Steve tells us what to do and we do it.”
“I was usually the one they made crawl into dark corners,” said the youngest volunteer, 21-year-old Leena Lewis, of Egg Harbor Township. “And I got nails, too.”
John Stephanik, of Linwood, mostly worked on the refinished console but added that he worked on pipes like everyone else — everyone else, that is, except for Chuck Nardelli, of Northfield, the designated carpenter.
Vito Mennella, meanwhile, has a downright crucial role.
“I’m the gofer,” the Egg Harbor Township resident explained. “I knew where the tools were.”
“I’m very, very proud of my crew here,” Beddia said. “Knowing absolutely nothing and still doing it.”
Learning the ins and outs of such a sophisticated instrument is no easy task. There are 56 ranks of 3,000 pipes, controlled by four manual, 32-note pedal boards. Air from two huge blowers are pumped into regulators housed in a giant, sound-proof chamber, which distributes air to the five blowers for each “division” — “pedal,” “swell,” “solo,” “positiv,” and “great” — each of which has distinct timbre and pitch.
Those divisions, meanwhile, are made up of pipes of all shapes and sizes, each one designed to simulate a unique sound — whether oboes or clarinets or flutes or strings. Tuning each of those hundreds of pipes is its own challenge.
“Look at the little sleeves at the ends of the pipes,” Beddia said. “You move them up or down to lengthen the pipe and change the pitch. It takes two people to change it — one to stand at the console and get yelled at, and the other person to change the tuning slots.”
The console, meanwhile, is a smorgasbord of pedals and keys and knobs, the latter of which are labeled with names such as “tremulant,” “Fourniture IV,” “Erzahler 8,” “SW Trumpet 16,” and “Gedecht 4.” These all mean something, Beddia said, and it is best to take his word for it.
“Right now, we’re debugging and fixing problems each week, the organ gets more and more alive,” he said. “It gets louder and fuller and more beautiful each week. We hope to have finished by early fall with a dedication recital in January — but we still have a lot of work to do.”
When that happens, the instrument will be the largest operating church organ in Atlantic County — the best they can hope for when the largest pipe organ on the planet, the Midmer-Losh pipe organ at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, is just down the road.
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