Gesu_Renovation-014Workers from the Schantz Organ Company of Orrville, Ohio, work on the renovation of the Gesu Parish organ last week. Central to the $2.4 million renovation project at the downtown parish is the restoration of the pipe organ, believed to be the largest in the state. The organ boasts 6,804 pipes which reach as high as 32 feet. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)Forget about the Milwaukee Brewers and Miller Park. For members of Milwaukee’s Gesu Parish in downtown Milwaukee, Opening Day will be March 27.

Nobody’s likely to tailgate in the lot behind Gesu that Sunday, but a standing room only crowd inside is a possibility as Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki officially opens not simply a new season, but a new era in the parish’s spiritual life. At a 9 a.m. Mass concelebrated with Jesuit Fr. Karl Voelker, Gesu’s pastor, and his associates, the archbishop will bless components of the church’s recent renovation: the reconfigured choir loft, the refurbished rose window, the loft houses and the revamped organ which once served a Chicago theater.

Central in the $2.4 million renovation has been the pipe organ – believed by Gesu’s executive director of operations, John F. O’Brien, to be the largest such instrument in Wisconsin. O’Brien, who referred to Fr. Voelker as the renovation “program sponsor” and to himself as the “program manager,” told your Catholic Herald via telephone that the organ boasts 6,804 pipes (reaching as high as 32 feet), 115 ranks and 90 stops – impressive figures to pipe organ enthusiasts.

The Schantz Organ Company of Orrville, Ohio, was responsible for refurbishing and expanding the instrument, including installation of a computerized console and removal of that console’s predecessor. In such a refurbishing, O’Brien said, “you salvage – you reuse – pipes and parts and pieces.” Some of the pipes for the instrument date to the 1890s, when the Kimball organ eventually acquired by a Gesu pastor was built for the theater. Some parts date to the 1950s, when the Kilgen Company of St. Louis rebuilt the Kimball organ.

Concerts to showcase renovated organ

Tom Jozwik
Special to your Catholic Herald

      MILWAUKEE — Several concerts – one of them featuring a world-renowned instrumentalist from Canada – will spotlight the newly renovated organ at Milwaukee’s Gesu Church, 1145 W. Wisconsin Ave.
      Canadian organist Isabelle Demers will make her first Milwaukee appearance on Saturday, Oct. 22, playing in a Gesu concert co-sponsored by the Schantz Organ Company (which handled the renovation) and the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists. Schantz and the AGO will sponsor another concert, according to Gesu executive director of operations John F. O’Brien, most likely in the spring of 2012.
      A couple of concerts will precede Demers’ appearance. John Weissrock, an award-winning organist who has plied his trade internationally, will perform on Saturday, June 11. Weissrock is the parish’s principal organist, having played at the church for more than 30 years. On Wednesday, Sept. 14, in conjunction with an exhibit at Marquette University’s Haggerty Museum, Weissrock will perform with concert violinist Jordan Waraksa.
      A weekly concert series called “Practical Daydreams” is expected to begin near the end of summer. O’Brien said these mid-day performances, probably on Mondays, are likely to double as practice sessions for the parish organists. Others may play as well.

The latest rebuild, the one Archbishop Listecki will bless, includes new “internal workings” and a humidification system – humidification being, according to O’Brien, “one of the biggest challenges with an instrument like this,” especially in a climate such as Wisconsin’s. The humidification system required the building of a “clean room” for the organ’s air intake.

In accordance with Catholic tradition in this part of the world, Gesu’s organ is regarded as a key element of Gesu’s music ministry, whose director, Dan Domrois, is himself an accomplished organist. The March 27 blessing will not merely mark the conclusion of a two-year project, but, in O’Brien’s words, “the culmination of a 120-year (musical) journey of the parish.”

Another aspect in Gesu’s choir loft renovation program is the rose window project – one that, O’Brien said, has been completed “on time, on budget, on spec.”

The stained glass window, a German import in the circa 1894 church, measures 28 feet across, has 29 panels and is located some 50 feet above the ground, at loft level. Depicted in the vast window are saints and Old Testament heroes – among them Vincent de Paul, King David and Cecilia, patron saint of music – as well as the logo of the Jesuits, who have charge of Gesu Church. After removing the window, employees of Conrad Schmitt Studios repaired and replaced pieces at their facilities in New Berlin, in addition to releading and reinstalling the window.

A few years ago, O’Brien said, Gesu strategic planners found the loft itself to be “in need of repair … in disarray.” The loft has been thoroughly redesigned, he said, “with an eye toward flexibility and functionality,” as well as safety. The space, of course, had to be made to accommodate the expanded organ. The loft is now a three-level structure, where formerly there were twice as many levels.

A final aspect of the Gesu renovation is what O’Brien called “a very significant upgrade” of the sound system. Separate sound systems have coexisted – one in the loft area, in the back of the church, for the music; the other in the front, for “the spoken Word.” The two systems are being integrated, “customized to the space,” in accordance with contemporary technology. The upgrade includes the laying of an infrastructure that could facilitate telecasting funerals and special university Masses when overflow crowds dictate the movement of people to remote locations.

“A couple of very benevolent parishioners” have contributed to Gesu’s loft program, O’Brien said. He added that, in addition to some “very large donations,” there have been hundreds of “grassroots” gifts.