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Salvaged pipe organ pieces from Regina to benefit Moose Jaw church

Moose Jaw's St. Aidan Anglican Church system is almost a twin of St. Matthew’s in Regina.

MOOSE JAW — The closure of Regina’s St. Matthew Anglican Church has proven to be music to the ears of three area parishes, as they are the recipients of the shuttered venue’s massive pipe organ collection.

St. Matthew’s closed several years ago and is facing the wrecking ball. While the Anglican Diocese of Qu’Appelle has removed almost everything from the building, there was still one issue to address — saving the roughly 1,500 organ pipes.

Nearly 20 people gathered recently over two days to salvage the pieces, with project lead Jason Barnsley — owner of Barnsley Pipe Organs in Calgary — overseeing the operation. Pipe sizes ranged in size from several inches long to 16 feet in length. 

First Baptist Church and St. Mary the Virgin Anglican Church, both in Regina, and Moose Jaw’s St. Aidan Anglican Church will receive pieces to support their existing systems, while the diocese will store the surplus.

Barnsley was in Moose Jaw recently helping tune St. Aidan’s 900-piece pipe organ system during the regular spring cleaning, with 17-year-old Camron Deans — an aspiring organ tuner — assisting. 

Moose Jaw’s system is almost a twin of St. Matthew’s, which is great since pieces from the latter can replace aging or broken parts — like keyboard console buttons — on the former, said Barnsley. 

St. Aidan will determine when it wants Barnsley to install the pieces, although since he has been servicing the system for three years, he will formulate a game plan. He noted that it could take two to 10 years to install everything.

Barnsley didn’t discover any major problems with the church’s system during the spring cleaning, although occasionally, he must replace a dead note or remove plaster. Sometimes, he must dispose of a dead bat or mouse.

The repairman appreciated having Deans working beside him, saying the youth was astute, attentive and had an eye and ear for detail. Barnsley also appreciated that Deans was roughly the same height because that made it easier to lift objects — like long pipe organ pieces.

Deans has been playing piano for 11 years and knows how to play a keyboard, while he has grown up at St. Aidan and hears the pipe organ played regularly — a sound he greatly appreciates. However, after the pandemic ended, he noticed that the church wasn’t using the instrument as often and offered to play for services.

“I became obsessed. I don’t know how (and) I don’t know why. I just gradually came to love it,” he said.

Compared to a piano, playing the pipe organ is much harder because the keys are lighter and it’s easy to hit many at once, causing a “muddle,” Deans continued. Furthermore, he needs special shoes so he can feel the pedals. 

The teen is also 6-3 in height and doesn’t physically fit the instrument, so he must lift his knee above his waist to play. His goal is to add blocks under the bench so he can use the pedals appropriately.

Deans enjoyed helping remove the pipe organ pieces from St. Matthew’s Church, although it was heavy, hot and dirty work. He noted that there was at least a centimetre-thick layer of dust on everything in the loft.

Being in the loft gave the youth a greater appreciation for the instrument since he could see all the moving parts and how everything connected. Moreover, he thought it was great to see the intricate system in person instead of on the internet or in a book.

The repairman’s story

Barnsley grew up attending a United Church in Lloydminster, and because he “got bitten by the organ bug” when he was 12, he fell in love with the instruments and became his church’s organist. 

He later moved to the United States for university and, after graduating, moved to rural Pennsylvania in 2000 and began attending a small Lutheran church that had a mechanical (non-electronic) organ. He contacted the instrument’s builder and asked if he needed an apprentice.

“He said, ‘I’m always looking for apprentices. The problem is that you’re a musician and I’m not going to hire you,’” Barnsley recalled. “I (asked) why and he said, “Well, because you’re going to be worried about cutting your fingers off in the saw.’” 

Regardless, the organ repairer took on the Canadian, who worked for him for eight years — thus beginning a 24-year career in repairing pipe organs. 

The repairman moved back to Canada nine years ago and started his business a year later.

Skills required

Barnsley said it takes many skills to repair pipe organs, such as cabinet-grade woodworking, leatherworking, metal-working, DC electronics and solid-state electronics. A repairer also needs good aural skills to hear the different pitches and notes and ensure they are accurate.

While people may think pianos and pipe organs are the same, there are many differences, he said. While one company can make the same piano without any differences, the construction of pipe organs can change from builder to builder, decade to decade or century to century — no two are the same.

This means Barnsley must repair, tune and service the widest swath of pipe organs possible so he gains experience and knows how they work, especially if he must disassemble and then reassemble the instruments. 

“Each instrument is so complex (that) they literally have their own personality (and) they all have their idiosyncrasies … ,” he said.

The Calgarian travels 50,000 kilometres annually — from Victoria to Winnipeg to Whitehorse — servicing pipe organs, while he has 80 clients ranging from schools to churches to museums to institutions to private homes. 

Vintage instruments

Barnsley visits St. Aidan twice a year — this is his seventh time here — to service its pipe organ and is “starting to get the handle on this beast” and its likes and dislikes. He joked that he and the instrument communicate with each other about its issues, with the latter “usually winning” any argument.  

While St. Aidan’s pipe organ is 94 years old, Barnsley has worked on some systems that are centuries old. In the United States, he recalled repairing an organ from 1771, while in Canada, he worked on a 1685 Dutch organ at the National Music Centre in Calgary.

Barnsley is unique in his profession because he is the last full-time pipe organ repairer in Western Canada. 

Barnsley noted that there is one Winnipeg man in his 70s “making noise about wanting to retire,” a repairer in Calgary in his 60s who — while not ready to retire yet — focuses more on building control systems, an 85-year-old woman in Vancouver still crawling around instruments, and almost everyone else in Saskatchewan retired.

“So as long as you’re physically able (and protect your hearing), you can do it right up until the end … ,” he said. “And I think it’s a job that’s safe from intrusion by AI (artificial intelligence or robots) … .”