The St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Church looked to remove the organ at the former Third Avenue United Church in Saskatoon Wednesday, with a long discussion taking place at city council.
The 1913 Casavant organ inside the former Third Avenue United Church, now known as the St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Church, is considered a historical asset and cannot be moved under the Municipal Heritage Property Designation set by the City of Saskatoon.
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It has gone through two major repairs in its lifetime — once in the 1950s and again in the 1980s — and would need to undergo expensive repairs once again to be used.
The pre-First World War church was built in 1911, and the heritage designation extends to not only the organ but also the exterior of the building as well as the rafters.
St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Church had applied to de-designate the organ, arguing that the instrument was in disrepair and would never be used.
Lenore Swystun, chair of the Saskatoon Heritage Society, spoke at the meeting, saying the organ is important to the building in both a cultural sense and an architectural one.
“It’s an integral feature of that interior of that building,” Swystun said.
Swystun said the current owners of the building were aware of the designation, adding they’ve also benefitted from that designation by receiving grants for roof repairs.
She said she strongly discouraged the de-designation of the organ.
Michelle Aalders was an organist at the former Third Avenue United Church and said her reaction to the application of having the organ removed was one of disbelief and disappointment.
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“This 110-year-old instrument does need attention, but it doesn’t make sense to make a full restoration, especially when it is not being played on a regular basis,” Aalders said.
Aalders said while anyone owns the building, it makes sense for them to be the caretakers of the organ.
She said the removal of the organ would be costly and short-sighted.
“It is costing the owners nothing to keep the organ there in the place it was built for.”
Aalders said there have been nearly 150 residents who have signed a letter of support to maintain the designation of the organ.
“Promises were made, and now they are being broken.”
She wondered why the current owners would purchase the property if the organ stood in the way of their worshipping.
Aalders said the organ consists of 2,468 pipes and 39 bells, ranging in size from as small as a pencil to as large as a dining room table.
“It is an intricate, complicated, magnificent instrument that can’t just be boxed up and stored for display in an improperly heated museum or elsewhere.”
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Father Herman Fields from St. Vincent of Lerins Orthodox Church said at the meeting that it was sad that the community that used the organ was no longer at the church, but said this was about people rather than an organ.
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Fields said the Orthodox community is one that builds, and they want to build a space that is theirs.
“We’re a church of people who build and do things, our altar is built by members of our parish, our iconostasis — that wall with icons — is built by people in our parish. We want to build, we want to create a worship space that is an Orthodox worship space,” Fields said.
He said much of the money they have is spent on refugees.
Fields said they were the only ones to bid on the church, adding that their culture and values were also valuable.
He said they weren’t informed about the state of the organ or the costs associated with it.
Fields said the organ doesn’t have a future as a musical instrument, saying that it will not get refurbished or repaired.
“It would be an immense invasion of our worship space to take it apart and do those repairs.
“The question is, ‘Will we have a dead relic of an organ occupying a space in there for no discernable purpose?’ or whether we will enfranchise and enable the new owners who are the long-term owners, who aren’t going away, to have agency to make their space an Orthodox worship space.’”
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He said with the new information it was rational to revisit the designation, adding that nobody has come forward asking to play the organ.
Fields added they have a large plan to renovate the interior of the building and wanted to explore the idea of possibly removing the organ.
Deanna Bertrand, chair with the church, said they weren’t trying to be disrespectful with their request, saying it came forward after they learned more about the current state of the organ.
She said there was a $27,000 cost to bring the organ back to playability, with a $300,000 cost if it were to be restored to concert playability.
“The organ also requires approximately $5,000 a year to maintain its functionality as an instrument.”
She said they will never use donations on the organ.
“We believe the space should be able to be adapted to our use and our personal worship style.”
City council opposed the de-designation, maintaining the heritage designation of the organ at the church.
– With files from Brooke Kruger
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