COLLEGEVILLE, Minn. – The largest of the new pipes added to the organ at St. John's Abbey stands 32 feet tall and weighs 850 pounds.
Built in the Abbey's woodworking shop and hoisted into place using pulleys, the pipe produces a sound that listeners feel rather than hear. It fills the trapezoidal-shaped concrete church in ways the 60-year-old instrument could not before a renowned organ builder doubled its size by adding nearly 3,000 new pipes.
"It's the richness, the musical color," said the Rev. Robert Koopmann, who spearheaded the project but didn't hear the finished product while he was away from the campus for part of the pandemic. When he returned, the triumphant sound from the Abbey was calling to him.
"This young man, maybe 15 years old … was playing a lot of the kind of recessional pieces that I like to play," he said. "I sat there and bawled."
Koopmann, a professor of music and former president of St. John's University, has been a Benedictine monk for 50 years. He is also a 1968 graduate of St. John's.
When he and his parents traveled from Waterloo, Iowa, to visit the campus in 1963, the church was just two years old. It was designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer and features honeycomb-shaped stained glass windows and geometric shapes in the worship space. The organ — dating from 1961 — was built by Walter Holtkamp Sr. of the Holtkamp Organ Co. of Cleveland.
The organ, which uses electric action rather than mechanical action to control the air flow into the pipes, always had a beautiful sound but did not fill the space.
"The idea was born about 40 years ago," Koopmann, 75, said of the project to revamp the organ. Several years ago, he was talking about the project with a parishioner, who then surprised Koopmann with a $10,000 check. The project was officially underway, with Koopmann ultimately raising $1.3 million for the improvements.
Organ designer Martin Pasi, a native of Austria who owns an organ company in Washington state, was between projects in 2017 when Koopmann asked him to visit St. John's University. He was immediately taken by the building and the possibilities for sound.
Pasi, 67, started working on the project in late 2017. He delivered some of the handmade pipes — made of wood or an alloy of lead or tin — in late 2019. He was on campus for about seven months, building the largest pipes in the woodworking shop alongside monks and tinkering with each pipe to match the acoustic sound to the original organ.
"My challenge was to combine these two different styles," he said. Pasi described the Holtkamp organ's style as classic American or Romantic. "The new style is really an old style — 17th and 18th century North German sound."
Now the Holtkamp-Pasi organ blends the two styles like an "old-fashioned synthesizer," Pasi said. "You can make new sounds that have never been heard before."
Pasi developed a passion for organs as a child.
"I just always wanted to go to the church and hear the organ," he said. "I was so attracted to the sound of the organ. It captured me and I could never break loose from that."
He began building organs during an apprenticeship program in Austria before moving to the United States in 1981.
The organ at St. John's is the 27th one Pasi has built or revamped since he opened his business in 1990. He has promised two more organs through his company, then plans to move to Minnesota and work out of the Abbey's woodworking shop, where he will train the next generation of organ builders.
The organ will be dedicated Saturday and Sunday at free events that are open to the public. A 7 p.m. Saturday concert will include the premiere of an organ piece by William Bolcom, which was commissioned by the Abbey. A Sunday afternoon concert features performances by graduates of the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University.
"The idea of an organ is always to bring people together," Pasi said, noting the splendor of the instrument is that one person can create so much sound.
"The organ is a ministry in itself," Koopmann said. "You see deeper into reality. You hear things that you wouldn't have ever heard before and whether you believe in God or you're a Catholic or a Protestant or anything, it takes you into the divine. Just experiencing those sounds, you are a different person."