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Locally crafted tracker organ comes ‘home’ to Rockburn

The shuffling of chairs disturbs the reverent silence of Rockburn Presbyterian church as five people sit together in a circle. It is “the circle of connection,” cites Sarah Fraser. These five people – Fraser, musician; Wolfgang Kater, instrument builder; Dennis Brown, woodturner, and his wife Dorothy; and Rob Ireland, woodworking teacher – all play a part in the story of the majestic mechanical tracker organ that stands behind them in what was once a lost corner of the church.

Fraser made the first connection. She knew of Kater by name only while she was at the Conservatoire de Musique de Montréal in the late seventies and early eighties, but she had played on two of the harpsichords that Kater had built. Twenty years later, he built an Italian harpsichord for her.

In 2006 Fraser got a call to fill in for six weeks at Crawford Park United Church in Verdun.  There she met Dennis Brown, the clerk of sessions, and his wife, Dorothy. Fraser stayed longer than expected, as the job of choir director soon turned into a full-time position. A few years later, the two United churches in Verdun (Crawford Park and Verdun) amalgamated and became Southwest United, using the Crawford Park space.  With the extra funds available, replacing an unused and tired old organ became a real possibility, and that’s where this organ’s story begins. 

Brown was given the assignment to buy a new instrument. He wanted a digital organ, but Fraser’s reaction was strong. “I coughed and spluttered!” she says. “An electronic organ has a lifespan. You chip away at it until it dies, and then it is worthless; but a tracker organ is a real instrument, and it lasts forever.”


The circle of connection is from left Dennis Brown Sarah Fraser Wolfgang Kater and Rob Ireland They sit in front of the organ PHOTO Yvonne Lewis Langlois


Fraser recalled the instrument builder who had just built a beautiful table organ for a friend and fellow musician in Montreal; Kater entered the story. He built harpsichords, but had always wanted to build an organ – a full instrument with keyboard and pedal board. After a concert, Kater met with Brown and Fraser to discuss the build. Brown wanted an organ with a particular sound, Kater remembers; “But of course you can’t describe the difference in words between strawberries and raspberries, you can’t do it.” In the end Brown sent Kater samples of 6 historical organs on a tape. “I called Dennis up and said, “It’s number three,” and he said “Yes, that’s the sound I want,” and ultimately, it sounds like 45 recorder players standing very close together.” The decision was made for Kater to build the organ for Southwest United; he started in 2007.

Kater gestures towards the organ behind him. “This is the bigger brother of the first organ.” He pauses in thought. “If you think about it, it was a tremendous leap of faith on the church’s part to order this thing, that was not cheap, from a guy who had made a tiny little organ this big.” He spreads his hands to show how small the table organ was.

Initially Kater consulted an experienced organ builder, but he says, “That’s when I learned a very important lesson: conventional organ wisdom will lead you very far astray…  you will find out that your intuitive concept is the way to go.”

Woodworking teacher Ireland had met Kater at the Rockburn Pub in 1975; Kater’s projects often were made with wood from Ireland’s woodlot. In 2008 some cherry and maple was harvested, dried, and milled there, but these were only two of the 22 types of wood that were used for the organ. “Anything that was used 300 or 400 years ago would have been used,” explains Fraser; this includes felt and leather.

White oak is, perhaps, the most important wood in this organ. Kater calls it, “the secret of the sound.” White oak can be hard to come by, but it is abundant in Kentucky as it is used for whisky barrels. Kater laughs, “Bach would have approved. He would say, ‘Those are the whisky barrels talking’.” However, says Kater, the oak is challenging to work. “It’s the nastiest wood on the planet. It’s rough and course. The machines hate it… they were screaming their heads off.”

Southwest United donated some other wood for the organ; and Harley Bye, who owned an orchard and was the minister at Rockburn Presbyterian, donated some apple wood. The Black walnut came from the Fraser farm just up the road from Rockburn. Brown is a woodturner, so Kater invited him to help him with the woodwork on the organ. Kater points out, “Anything that is round is Dennis’s work.”

The organ was completed in 2010 and it lived at Southwest United church until the fall of 2022. Then Southwest United closed, and the organ needed another home. Fraser and Brown started to ponder where the organ could go. “A part of my life is in building this thing.” Brown points to the organ. “To see it kicked to the curb… it wasn’t going to happen.” Brown thought that perhaps the new congregation who bought the building would also buy the organ, but they declined the offer; they preferred the voices of their choir.

Fraser had an idea where the organ should go, but it was Ireland’s visit to her farm to see her pet pigs that solidified it. Ireland‘s wife, Pam, was reading Charlotte’s Web to their grandson, Benjamin, and he was eager to see real pigs, so Ireland brought him to visit. Afterwards, Fraser brought up the idea of Rockburn adopting the organ.

“Rob was interested right away, and he said, ‘Leave it with me’. He was in the next day to see the organ at Southwest,” Fraser says.

Soon after Ireland got involved, things moved quickly. He presented the idea to the Rockburn congregation, and the next week he arrived at Southwest United with his tape measure. He figured that two front pews in the Rockburn church would have to go to accommodate the organ in the left-hand corner of the building. Kater already knew that the acoustics would be great; churches like Rockburn Presbyterian was built so that preaching could be heard clearly without microphones. Brown was elated. “The church bought the organ for ten dollars. It was the official sale: Southwest to Rockburn. Heavy negotiations!” quips Brown.

“It just made perfect sense that it should come back to where it was created. [The church] is less than a mile from where [the organ] was built and less than a mile from where a lot of the material that went into it came from,” Ireland says. Brown agrees. “There couldn’t be a better place for it. Quite frankly, this is where it was meant to go.”

The move

“When Rob called me about moving this organ to Rockburn, I was terrified,” admits Kater. He knew that many adjustments would have to be made to the organ and the church. But “The community was fully behind it: our church community, but also in the wider community in Ormstown. It became quite exciting when people just had to see the parts of it,” Ireland explains.

Michael Furey donated the services of his construction company and employees as the moving team. They dismantled the organ and transported it from Verdun to Rockburn in October of 2022. There are more than 2500 parts to the organ, and around 263 pipes; some sections needed four men to carry them. Kater had constructed the organ so that the parts could be broken down to pass through a residential doorway, which is 32 inches.

Ireland and Gordon Furey reassembled the organ. It required some screws, but for the most part it slipped together like “the world’s best Meccano set,” says Kater.

This organ has tracker action, which means that there is a mechanical linkage between the organ keys or pedals that allows air to flow into the pipes of each corresponding note. The term “tracker” comes from the latin verb “trahere” which means “to draw.” This type of organ can trace its history back to the third century BC. Tracker action gives the organist more precise control over the exact moment when the air goes into the pipe, making it a “touch-sensitive instrument.”

Furey worked for three days on his back, reconnecting the nine mechanical linkages that had to be readjusted and set up again. “Gordon, being a tractor mechanic, was perfectly at home with this,” Kater remarks.

The pieces were assembled, but more challenges were to come.

In the early days of pipe organs, a person, known as a calcant, would work the bellows; today an electric blower supplies the air to the pipes. Rockburn’s organ blower had to be installed in the basement, which is literally a crawl space. Kater was concerned that the original blower would be an issue because of the limited space and the noise it produced, so the group decided to keep the original enclosure and the bellows box but change the blower.


Organist Sarah Fraser plays the Rockburn Presbyterian churchs tracker organ during a rehearsal for the upcoming concert to inaugurate the instrument The concert will take place on June 4 PHOTO Scott Taylor


Dedicated organ blowers are extremely expensive; an alternative would have to be found, but it had to have the right capacity. The group first tried one from Furey’s old furnace. “It didn’t create the pressure that we needed,” Ireland says. Sydney Daniel, who works in maintenance at New Frontiers School Board, was called in for the ducts; “Sydney is the man for duct work,” Ireland states emphatically. Daniel suggested trying a blower that Chateauguay Regional High School used for drying the floors. This blower had been adapted from one used to inflate “bouncy castles.”

“It did the job,” states Ireland, and an enclosure from Furey’s old furnace together with a “bouncy castle” blower was installed. Daniel spent a lot of time in the crawl space connecting the duct work. “He was on his belly and his back,” says Ireland. “…Rolling around in dirt that was shoveled in the 1850s!” adds Fraser.

Furey, once a fire chief, understood the dangers of possible overheating of the blower motor; he had experienced a fire caused by an overheated blower in another church. Ireland came up with the idea of a timer so that the blower could automatically turn itself off.

Finally, the wiring for the organ was run throughout the church by Ireland with help from Kater’s apprentice. Electrician Michel Cournoyer donated the wire and his time to do the final connections. Tuning was a challenge due to temperature issues and sawdust left by modifications, but Rockburn Presbyterian church had its new functioning organ.

Settling in

The group had hoped that the organ could be played for the first time on Christmas Eve; unfortunately, the service was cancelled because of the weather. But the organ did make a Christmas Eve debut of sorts: a small group of parishioners assembled around the organ and played a few Christmas carols in the empty church.

The organ has settled perfectly into Rockburn Presbyterian. “It sounds much warmer here,” says Brown. Interestingly, one of the church’s stained-glass windows depicts St. Cecilia playing an organ; she sits on a bench which is engraved with a logo that is remarkably similar to Kater’s logo that is engraved into the tracker organ. The fish symbol at the top of Kater’s instrument is worked in ebony; his daughter, Julia, who is a graphic designer, created this symbol for the organ. Fraser concludes, “There are so many circles of connection around this organ – people and experiences – it’s what makes it very special.”

Rockburn Presbyterian Church and Southwest United Church will celebrate the inauguration of the organ with voices and instruments on June 4 at 4 p.m.

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