Remembering Gaetz United’s original pipe organ

Music is often closely associated with religion. The beauty of music, coupled with its ability to convey a sense of mood, spirit and wonder, makes it a very popular form of worship.

One instrument that is closely identified with Christianity in the western world is the organ. An organ, well played, can provide a richness of sound, enhancing the beauty of the music and the sense of feeling.

When the first congregations were being established in the Red Deer area in the early 1880s, musical instruments were scarce. Most music consisted of the settlers singing familiar hymns. Where there was a particularly talented singer, they were frequently asked to perform a solo.

When William Vrooman, a young Methodist student missionary, arrived in the district in the summer of 1887, he occasionally played the violin during services at the schoolhouse, or at the Gaetz home where there was a piano.

His successor, John Dickenson, was also a talented musician, despite having a crippled hand. His musical talents were so appreciated that the Gaetz family paid him a small sum to teach music to their children.

Within a year of the townsite of Red Deer being created in 1891, the Methodists constructed the first church in the hamlet on north side of Blowers (51) St., east of Gaetz Ave.

It is unclear when this little church acquired an organ. However, it is likely to have been purchased sometime in the mid-1890s after the congregation covered the costs of construction.

By the turn of the last century, Red Deer began to grow rapidly. The first Presbyterian Church was constructed in 1898 on the corner of Mann (49) St. and McKenzie (49) Ave. The following year, work began on the beautiful sandstone St. Luke’s Anglican Church on MacLeod (54) St.

By 1902, the Methodists doubled the size of their church building. In 1904, they acquired a large new pump organ. It was sufficiently large that a small boy had to be ‘volunteered’ to work the bellows while the organist played.

In 1909-1910, the Methodists built an imposing new church on the corner of Ross St. and Nanton (48) Ave.

It was named Leonard Gaetz Memorial Methodist Church in honour of the late Rev. Gaetz who had been the original owner of the Red Deer townsite.

As the church was completed, the Gaetz family decided to gift a magnificent pipe organ, Red Deer’s first, in memory of their mother Caroline. The cost was $2,500, a sum equal to the cost of a good-sized farm at the time.

According to the newspaper, “The new instrument was a two manual organ, with pneumatic action, 20 speaking stops of 61 notes each, seven couplers and double acting pistons.”

It was finished in dark wood, to match the pews, and the pipes were gold in colour.

Tragically, the beautiful old pipe organ was destroyed when Gaetz Church burned down on Jan. 13, 1955. Unfortunately, the congregation did not have the funds to purchase a new pipe organ when the Church was rebuilt. Consequently, a much more modest Hammond Electric was acquired.

In 1969, Gaetz Church acquired a new Compton organ. It was a four manual, 10 rank organ, made of solid oak. It was also reputed to be the largest organ of its type in Canada.

In 1987, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the congregation, Gaetz Church acquired a new pipe organ. It was custom built by Letourneau Organs of Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec. Total cost was $203,000.

The noted organist, Barry Cabana, officially inaugurated the magnificent new organ with a concert on Nov. 14, 1987.

On March 24 at 7:30 p.m. there will be a special pipe organ and pan flute concert at Gaetz United Church, featuring the international duo of Andre Knevel (organist) and Liselotte Rokyta (pan flutist). Tickets are $10 per person or $25 for a family, with children 12 and under, and can be purchased at the Church office or at the door.