A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: Re-dedication concert for the Historic Schwab pipe organ inspired concert series

By Stephen Enzweiler
Special to NKyTribune

(Part 2 of a 2-part series on the musical legacy of the historic Matthias Schwab organ)

In the autumn of 1970, the wrecking crews descended in force upon 12th and Greenup Streets, took up their positions, then went to work. As the wrecking ball swung into the structure of old St. Joseph’s Church, former parishioners and neighborhood residents looked on as the 111-year old vacant structure came down in crashing heaps of brick and rubble.

The Historic Matthias Schwab pipe organ found a permanent home in the west gallery of the Cathedral Basilica, a home it has enjoyed for the last 43 years. (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

Two blocks to the west, safe and protected in the quiet stillness of the Cathedral Basilica basement, sat most of the old church’s former pipe organ, built in 1859 by Matthias Schwab. The hundreds of pieces sat there patiently in boxes and against the stone walls, arranged in small bundles or neatly arranged groupings, pipes gathered together by size and rank, with some bits stored in the loft above the north sacristy. Everything was chalked with a number for easy reassembly on that day when it might rise again to a new musical life.

Upstairs in the Cathedral Basilica that day was organist Bob Schaffer playing the morning Mass. He was a happier man for having saved the historic pipe organ from the wrecking ball; but despite his achievement, he was still uncertain of just what would become of his charge.

For more than a year after, it sat in the basement. During that time, the idea began to gradually emerge in Schaffer’s mind that the Schwab organ could go in the Cathedral’s west gallery above the main Madison Avenue entrance. The gallery was empty and available, but it was uncertain if its massive bulk would even fit. Schwab instruments of this size, like many large church organs of its day, tended to be longer than wide to accommodate the tracker action, and the west gallery was not as deep in length as the loft at St. Joseph’s where it was originally installed.

“I think it was my dad’s idea,” remarked Greg Schaffer. “It was around October of 1972 or so, and it took a long time to put that thing back together.”

Bob Schaffer preparing for the dedication concert in 1974. (Archives of the Diocese of Covington.)

Because St. Joseph’s pastor, Fr. Thaner, had given sole permission to Bob Schaffer to salvage the instrument for his own purposes, it could be argued that the pipe organ was now Schaffer’s property. But Bob and his wife Rita – herself an accomplished organist – didn’t see it that way. Bob, a Catholic and dedicated Cathedral parishioner, and Rita, an Episcopalian, had always considered the instrument as belonging to the Diocese of Covington and its Catholic community. They felt it belonged to the church and that any action regarding the future disposition of the Historic Schwab pipe organ was the purview of Covington’s Bishop, the Most Rev. Richard H. Ackerman.

By the autumn of 1972, Bob Schaffer went to see Bishop Ackerman and formally asked permission to rebuild the Schwab organ in the Cathedral’s west gallery.

The Bishop patiently listened for some time as Schaffer explained the historic and musical importance of the instrument to the community, going down the list of reasons why he felt it needed to be put back together.

The Most Rev. Richard Henry Ackerman. (Kenton County Public Library.)

It apparently didn’t take much to convince the 69-year old prelate, who quickly gave his permission. Schaffer then called upon the same volunteers who had helped him take apart the historic instrument to now help him reassemble it.

Everyone knew it could take a year or more to accomplish this, but all the generous-minded persons who were involved in the original disassembly two years earlier now came forward and again offered their services. Bob Schaffer couldn’t believe his luck.

The major portion of the reconstruction began in the spring of 1973 and continued into the late autumn. Richard Kersting, a parishioner and student at the Seminary of St. Pius X, lent his skilled hands as the principal organ builder and restorer, reassembling pipes and major components according to what was then understood to be Schwab’s original design. As before, carpenter and parishioner Charles Haegele took charge of reassembling the frame and casework which housed the major mechanical components of the tracker action. Thomas Cunningham, a master organ builder and Schaffer friend, served as advisor in helping organize the technical aspects and keep the project on track.

Cathedral parishioner Richard Kersting was responsible for much of the technical restoration work. Here he is shown assembling one of the ranks of pipes comprising the instrument. (Archives of the Diocese of Covington.)

Expert riggers from the Cincinnati Building Trades Union rebuilt the upper casework that would eventually provide support to the interior action and three towers above containing ranks of pipes up to 16-foot in length. Additional help was added by Bishop’s Choir members Mark and Greg Schaffer, Anthony Tuemler and Harry Moorman. Week after week, parishioners watched as a new shape began to rise from behind the gallery railing.

But a serious problem emerged along the way: Haegele discovered that the west gallery was not as deep as the one at the old St. Joseph’s Church, meaning the distance from back wall to railing wasn’t long enough to fit both instrument and organist. The solution was for Haegele to shorten the bulky wooden casework just enough that it would both retain the original design and also allow the organist’s bench to just fit up against the gallery railing.

By Christmas 1973, the Historic Matthias Schwab pipe organ was finally complete. To celebrate the completion of its reconstruction – all done by volunteer artisans – a re-dedication concert was planned. It was a duplication of the final concert heard in St. Joseph’s Church before its closure in July 1970.

On the evening of March 12, 1974, the Cathedral was standing room only as the special choral concert was presented. The goodly-natured Bishop Ackerman was also on hand to celebrate the event

Dr. Greg Schaffer at the Schwab keyboards. “The carpenter had to shorten the casework to make the organ and organist fit in the gallery,” says Schaffer. “When I play it now, my back is pushing against the rail behind me. Very tight fit.” (Photo by Stephen Enzweiler.)

The concert lasted for more than two hours. Bob Schaffer performed on the restored Schwab organ as the Bishop’s Choir sang a program of classical and sacred music. There was Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor”, Louis Marchand’s “Mass Suite #5”, and two works by Louis Couperin – “Saraband in F major” and “Chaconne in G minor.” Sung in honor of St. Joseph, the patronal saint of the now demolished St. Joseph’s Church was Ludovico Viadana’s “Introit – Falso Bordone” from his votive Mass to the patron saint, as well as a Gregorian hymn “Te Joseph Celebrant.” The final piece that evening was Cesar Frank’s choral arrangement of Psalm 150. As the music began, Bishop Ackerman rose from his seat and processed to the back of the church, then climbed the formidable winding staircase to bless the Schwab organ in its new home with holy water.

“Bishop Ackerman was no young man by then,” remembered Greg Schaffer, “but he climbed up those narrow, winding steps to the back loft in full regalia and blessed the organ. . .he ‘sprinkled It. My mom used to love to tell that story.”

The concert left a deep impression in the minds of many in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky music community. Word spread quickly about the music and the story of the restored pipe organ. Schaffer relates that “people kept saying, ‘well, you should start a concert series. What you have here is so wonderful!’”

James Goettsche, principal organist at both St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel in Rome, Italy, has performed twice with the Cathedral Concert Series. (Courtesy of the Vatican.)

Bob Schaffer took the suggestion to heart, and in 1975 he formally inaugurated the “Cathedral Concert Series”, which will begin its 42nd season this fall. The Series has always been noted for its world class guest organists, pianists, sopranos, instrumentalists, choral groups, stunning musical selections…and the Schwab pipe organ.

For more than four decades now, the Series has continued to provide performances of sacred and classical music to the Northern Kentucky community, drawing famous performers from the world over. Among them have been Diane Bish, host of the PBS series “The Joy of Music”; the quintet “Harmonic Brass Munich” from Germany; Cincinnati’s famed Musica Sacra Chorus under the direction of Dr. Helmut Roehrig; soprano Tatiyana Tcharskaya from St. Petersburg, Russia; German organist Heinz Wunderlich and violinist Nellie Soregi; and James Goettsche, Vatican organist at St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel, who has appeared twice in the concert Series. Additionally, the Series presents an annual Bach Birthday Concert each March and the “Advent Festival of Lessons in Carols” concert, suggested by Rita and modeled in the Anglican tradition, which is now the most heavily attended program year after year.

“If it wasn’t for the Schwab organ, there would be no Cathedral Concert Series,” admitted Schaffer, who now directs the series and occupies his father’s former position as the Cathedral Basilica’s principal organist and choirmaster. “It really is a testament to the power of music and the devotion of people in our community to this piece of music history.”

Diane Bish, host of the series “The Joy of Music” on PBS, played with the Cathedral Concert Series in 2015. “The Joy of Music” was broadcast to over 300 million people around the world each week, combining exhilarating organ and ensemble performances with an informative, inspirational narrative and exciting world travel. (Courtesy of Diane Bish.)

In the years since its rebuilding, the Schwab pipe organ remains one of only two known playable Schwab instruments in existence. But though still playable, its physical structure and components have begun to fall to the scythe of time. A fund for upkeep and the eventual complete restoration of the Historic Schwab organ was begun by Bob Schaffer in 1975, and a number of generous contributors from all over the area were represented. The first donation came from a Lutheran pastor.

But over the years, donations have declined to the point where only a small portion of needed restoration funds have been realized. “You can’t just call a repairman down the street to come fix your historic tracker pipe organ when it needs fixing,” remarked Greg Schaffer with a cautionary grin. “This kind of instrument requires the tender loving care and discerning vision of a skilled and seasoned professional who knows its history and can fully restore it to its original condition without affecting the sound. And that tends to be rather expensive.”

On September 24, the Cathedral Concert Series will kick off its 42nd season of sacred music at Covington’s Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, featuring the UC College Conservatory of Music’s CCM Chorale and the Seven Hills Brass Ensemble under the direction of Robyn Lana, Brett Scott, Kevin Coker and Molly Getsinger.

All are welcome. There is no admission charge. For more information, click here.

“The major legacy of the Schwab pipe organ really is the inception of the Cathedral Concert Series,” said Schaffer. “If dad had never rescued it, we wouldn’t be standing here today talking about going into another season.”

Stephen Enzweiler is a writer and author. He has been a columnist for the Kentucky Enquirer, the Oxford Citizen, and was a senior editor at Y’all Magazine. He is the author of Oxford in the Civil War: Battle for a Vanquished Land (2010).

Two generations of Cathedral organists grace the Historic Matthias Schwab organ: the late Dr. Bob Schaffer (left) and his son, Dr. Greg Schaffer (right). (Archives of the Diocese of Covington and Stephen Enzweiler. )

Harmonic Brass Munich is renowned for their big brass sound. They perform 120 concerts a year worldwide and have performed at New York Carnegie Hall, Seoul Arts Center, Leipzig Gewandhaus and with the Cathedral Concert Series. (Courtesy of Harmonic Brass Munich.)

Related Posts

Leave a Comment