If pipe organs could talk, the beauty at Our Lady of Lourdes Church would have quite a tale to tell.
It spent a scant seven years there, enriching the world-famous liturgies, before the Loma Prieta earthquake rendered the cathedral irreparable. The organ then spent more than six years in a warehouse before finding new life at a renovated Our Lady of Lourdes Church, where it has resided happily since 1996.
But this organ's story begins well before that 1982 installation.
In his memoir of his years at the Oakland cathedral from 1967 to 1986, "How Awesome Is This Place!" Rev. Don Osuna chronicles the patience required for waiting for the "king of instruments."
In 1968, the young Father Osuna had been placed in charge of liturgical ministries at the new cathedral. The pastor, Rev. Michael Lucid, had the following conversation with him:
"I understand that the diocesan music committee, of which you are the director, has arranged for the installation of a new pipe organ for the cathedral. I also understand that it will cost $35,000. Is that right?" I nodded. "Well, the bishop has ordered me to pay for it out of our savings! However, there are only $27,000 in that account. Furthermore, the school budget will require this year a parish subsidy of $25,000. I'm afraid that I'll have to ask you to postpone the purchase of the new organ."
With a generous $25,000 gift, the fundraising began, and the contract for the two-manual, 29-rank pipe organ was awarded to the San Francisco firm of Schoenstein and Co.
Father Osuna writes in his memoir, "to add to the great joy and fortune of all, Mario Balestrieri was hired as cathedral organist. This young, enormously gifted San Franciscan, with a fresh master's degree in organ performance from San Francisco State University, undertook his appointment with enthusiasm, artistry and geniality. As accompanist to choir and congregation, as well as concert performer, "Maestro Mario B" increasingly enhanced our prayer with a new, invigorating and majestic sonority."
That "majestic sonority" would not last until the end of the 1980s. Its maker, Schoenstein and Co., carefully removed it from the earthquake-damaged cathedral. "All in all, it was straightforward," recalled Jack Bethards, who owns the company.
At Our Lady of Lourdes, in the mid-1990s, a years-long process of renovating the 1961 church for its Vatican II life was underway. Bethards brought to the attention of Rev. Seamus Genovese the possibility of replacing the church's pipe organ with the one in storage.
The Lourdes organ, after all, was in need of repair: a blower motor had broken down, and it was small for that space.
Bethards knew what he was talking about. As a student at the University of California, Berkeley, he had helped install that pipe organ decades earlier. And he was familiar with the cathedral pipe organ: His company had built it.
"Our concern was that it was a safe in storage place," Bethards said. "Which it was."
To Father Genovese fell the formidable task of purchasing the organ from the diocese, as well as finding $50,000 to install it.
To install at Our Lady of Lourdes Bethards said, "we didn't have to make any changes."
"We knew it would be a perfect home." The acoustics are better than the old cathedral," he said.
"It's in a better place than it was before."
The organist for the Oct. 7 concert is "Maestro Mario B," who was 24 when he started playing that organ.
Balestrieri was the organist at St. Elizabeth Church in San Francisco. "We were looking for an organ builder," he recalled. Schoenstein representatives wanted to show them their latest installations.
"They brought us to the churches," Balestrieri said. "St. Francis de Sales was the most recent. Checking out the instrument for my own parish led me to leave my parish."
He has the opportunity to play that particular pipe organ "on occasion," he said. The last time was in the spring at the memorial service for Jimmy Burton, "one of our most active parishioners at St. Francis de Sales."
The opportunity to be in the company of former members of the cathedral choir is rare and welcome, said Balestrieri.
"It was such a remarkable, growth-filled time in my life, professionally and musically," he said of his years at St. Francis de Sales.
For the last 24 years, he has been music director at Church of the Epiphany in San Francisco, and has taught music at the parish school. He was on the committee that selected the organ for the Cathedral of Christ the Light, and went to Quebec with John McDonnell to see the first phase of the instrument set up in the factory.
McDonnell will direct the choir at the Oct. 7 concert, which will be made up of former choir members at St. Francis de Sales, and some members of choirs gathered for the dedication of the Cathedral of Christ the Light, the farewell Mass for Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and the installation Mass of now-Archbishop-designate Salvatore J. Cordileone.
"They will perform choral selections, which I'll accompany, as well as organ literature, which I'll perform," Balestrieri said.
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