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History of Cathedral Organs

A Brief History of Organs at the Church of the Saviour

and Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral




Twenty-two years after its founding in 1855, the Church of The Saviour installed a two-manual Hook and Hastings organ, Op. 1377, of some 27 registers. It was destroyed in the 1902 fire which necessitated a rebuild and visionary enlargement of the church. A new contract was signed in 1903 with Austin Organs of Hartford, Connecticut for Op. 73, a four-manual organ of 49 ranks, with tonal design by Carlton Mitchell.


By the mid-1980’s after musical styles and new repertoire had influenced church musicians, repairs and changes to the tonal scheme of the Austin organ were undertaken. In 1985 Brantley Duddy of Cedars, Pennsylvania retained much of the previous organ, added high pitched mixtures and upper work and removed the enclosed Great division, creating a Positiv division.  The 1903 Austin had a Solo division at the west end of the church. The 1985 rebuild had a plan for an antiphonal division, but it was never realized.


In 2002, Walker Technical was contracted to install a two manual and pedal addition of digital voices, speaking from the original Solo chambers. Sixteen ranks of pipes now sing from these chambers as a result of the restoration. When the once in a lifetime opportunity arose in the form of a magnificent grant from the Wyncote Foundation to restore and house the Möller Opus 6425, it opened the possibility of a fine organ for the Cathedral, raising the bar over restoring the previous Austin to a former grandeur.


  • Wesley Parrott

       Cathedral Organist

       October 2021





A new organ built in the midst of a pandemic




Organists and devotees of pipe organs are very mindful of history. These complex instruments take time and skill to design, craft, and install, and have often endured more than a century. The previous organ in the present space was built between 1903 and 1906. Documents of the organ and stained-glass windows still in our sanctuary from that time provide a direct connection to the people who preceded us that would otherwise be lost.


Those who follow us in decades hence may look at our documentation of this organ project and recall that a deadly pandemic raged during the final 18 months of the project. In fact, the beginning of the work in the Cathedral itself of building the new chambers and installing the restored pipes was scheduled to begin just weeks after everything shut down during the second week of March, 2020. Only a few weeks before our inaugural recital on October 24, 2021, the coronavirus pandemic became the deadliest in United States history (surpassing the 1918-1919 influenza death toll of 675,000).


At the time of that inaugural recital, face masks were still a requirement for indoor group gatherings in Philadelphia, as the latest variant of the virus had only recently started to recede. Though a new type of remarkably safe and effective vaccine had been developed in record time, there was still great uncertainty about when the pandemic would be over, with children still unvaccinated and a significant portion of the country still resisting the very idea of vaccination itself.


Over the previous 18 months, the work on the organ gradually resumed, with the unexpected benefit that while the Cathedral was closed for any other activity, it was easier to schedule work to be done. The Cathedral congregation began meeting “virtually” over a recently developed video-conferencing platform called “Zoom.” Virtual worship required significant adjustments for everyone, but over time brought its own peculiar and precious intimacy, keeping bonds of faith and community alive. As the gallery divisions were completed, Cathedral organist Wesley Parrott would accompany himself singing hymns at the new organ console, carried live over Zoom.


With indoor choir singing considered particularly unsafe because the virus was primarily spread by aerosol vapor from   breathing, choir director Tom Lloyd began pre-recording Wesley’s preludes and postludes which were then turned into videos involving work of Cathedral artists and masters of the past and photos of congregational life pre-pandemic.


Following the widely-viewed video of the police murder of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, there was a significant national awakening to long-standing racial justice issues. In response to our congregation’s engagement with these issues through intensive study sessions and participation by many in public marches, several organ videos included historical portraits and newsreel footage of previous civil rights activities as well as photos from numerous peaceful Black Lives Matter protests during that same period. Cathedral Dean Judith Sullivan co-chaired a diocesan task force formed to document historic racism in our diocese and steps that could be taken going forward to begin to remedy the identified injustice.


At a time when church attendance nationally had been on the wane, the larger church was challenged as never before. Meeting in person for worship and other activities were not safe options. One might ask what place a major pipe organ project would have in such a time (as many of us did!). A pipe organ is a large, complex, and costly musical instrument from a centuries-old European tradition, imported to the New World during a period of colonial conquest. 




So why do we rejoice in such seeming extravagance in the midst of a pandemic, the ever-quickening pace of climate change, and social and political polarization?


We offer these aspirations:


Because the beauty of the human imagination, especially when inspired by the journey of faith, is something that gives us hope.


Because the body of repertoire, including both hymns and solo pieces composed over centuries for this most complex and remark- able of instruments continues to grow even to this day (as will be heard in our opening concerts).


Because this repertoire continues to draw listeners to the stunningly varied colors of its many distinct sounds, and because we believe this particular instrument is a truly exceptional blessing to us.


Because building and servicing these instruments continues to maintain a craftsmanship handed down over generations, including the 55 skilled organ technicians who were employed for this project, not to mention those who built the original Möller Op. 6425 almost a century before us.

And finally, avoiding parochial claims of superiority or elite pedigree, the European tradition of organ music and hymns for Christian worship is a tradition worthy of a place alongside many other equally precious worldwide traditions of prayer and praise for the God we believe to be the source of all our being, as revealed in Jesus Christ.


We expect to be held accountable not only for the stewardship of this grace-filled gift, but for insuring that its music will be accessible to all, not only to our congregation and diocese, but through our social ministries (taking place in this same space), and to our city through public concerts by ensembles and soloists from across our region and beyond. With God’s grace, may we be faithful in that mission so that those who come after us might look back and give thanks for this ray of light emerging from an otherwise very uncertain time. 


                                                                                           - Thomas Lloyd

                                                                                              Canon for Music and the Arts

                                                                                              October 2021



Last Published: October 22, 2021 9:18 PM