Dr. Brooks Whitmore, a native of the Village of Dallas who now lives in Wyoming, performs during the Centennial Celebration of the Shaefer Pipe Organ at Sacred Heart Church in Almena. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

On Sunday, June 9, Catholics in Almena opened wide the doors of Sacred Heart Church for a celebratory concert in honor of their 100-year-old pipe organ. While the parish, now clustered with Cumberland and Turtle Lake, dates back to 1892, the current, traditionally styled brick building was dedicated in late 1903.

The pipe organ was installed in 1924 by the Schaefer Pipe Organ company of Slinger. Originally set in front of the pipe housing, a mirror was used for the organist to see the altar. Later, the organ was moved to the far corner of the choir loft and positioned for its player to have a direct line of sight.

The centennial concert date was chosen for its proximity to the Feast of the Sacred Heart in honor of the parish’s patron. Parish musician Sue Wohlk acted as master of ceremonies for the celebration and introduced one of the cluster’s deacons, followed by a descendent of the Schaefer Organ Company’s founders, to open the event.

Dcn. Steve Welter of Almena led a prayer to begin the celebration. “Heavenly Father … we thank you for the gift of music. We know that music lifts the heart and soul. We thank you for giving our ancestors the desire and insight to build the organ that has served our church for a hundred years …

“May our hearts be lifted up to you as we experience the expression of song … May our ancestors join us in spirit and witness this expression of joy and remembrance. May we be able to pass on to future generations the gift of this instrument.”

Audrey Schaefer Held began by sharing her surprise to see the large crowd and thanked everyone for coming. She acknowledged the members of Sacred Heart parish for keeping the organ in such good condition that it could played for 100 years. Held also recognized her husband, Bob, who had the idea for the centennial celebration, as well as her sister, Rose, who designed the event program.

Held then invited Dr. Brooks Whitmore to come forward. Together, they related the “quite unusual” story of how they met in Austin, Texas, while Held and her husband attended Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral while visiting family. Seeing a man walk in with large books under his arm, the couple decided to introduce themselves and share their own love of music.

Dr. Whitmore, who was the cathedral’s organist for a number of years, continued. He had not been surprised by their greeting; given the church’s downtown Austin location, he said they would have many visitors and tourists on a regular basis.

“However, the gentleman was wearing a ball cap that said ‘Cumberland,’” he added and paused while his audience laughed. “That did catch my eye in the middle of Texas,” he said and recounted how he inquired if they might be from Cumberland, Wisconsin. They said yes, to which he responded, “Oh, I’m from Dallas,” clarifying it was “the other Dallas,” in Wisconsin as well.

They discovered that they knew several people in common and then fast-forwarded to their communication last fall. Held asked Dr. Whitmore if he would be interested in performing this recital, which he accepted.

Dr. Whitmore graduated from Barron High School in 1989. He had been a piano student of Una Bonkrude and later her daughter, Bonnie Bonkrude Miller, well-known area musicians. He studied music at UW-Eau Claire and earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. His doctorate in music was earned at the University of Texas in Austin during the 26 years he lived there. For 15 of those, Dr. Whitmore’s primary occupation was as musician for Austin’s Cathedral. He has since moved to Wyoming with his wife, Jennifer, also a UW-Eau Claire graduate, and their seven children.

The organist then gave a brief overview of how pipe organs work. He said the organ is a set of pipes, “basically whistles through which sound is pushed … It imitates various instruments such as strings and flutes.

“An organ like this,” he continued, “is really like a musical time machine. The sounds you’re about to hear are almost exactly the same sounds that were heard in 1924 and throughout the succeeding generations. When you think about all that the organ has witnessed – all of the worship and prayers that it has accompanied; all the families it has helped to celebrate and to grieve various occasions in their lives – I think it’s really neat that we get to be a part of its 100th birthday today.”

Held shared one other personal story about a speech she had to give in college. Her thesis statement was that pipe organs should be the preferred instrument for church music, and she went to her father for input. Held referred to the GIRM (General Instruction for the Roman Missal) and said, “In that manuscript, it says that anything used for our liturgical celebrations (is) supposed to be genuine and authentic.”

She gave as examples, only real plants and flowers are used for the altar, genuine precious metals for the sacred Eucharistic vessels and genuine music as well. “Being genuine,” she said referring to the instruments, “they should be as close to real as possible,” meaning an orchestra would need to be present for liturgical celebrations.

“The pipe organ is as close as you can get to an orchestra, because the sound is going through metal and wood pipes,” she explained. Held’s information was provided by her father, Bernard, the third president of Schaefer Organs, who ran the company from 1966-1974. No new organs were built after 1968, but they continued rebuilding and servicing instruments.

Held expounded on some of the company’s history. Great-grandfather Bernhard Schaefer, a clockmaker by trade, immigrated from Germany in 1873. He built his first pipe organ in 1875 at St. Peter’s in Schleisingerville – now Slinger – which she suggested should have a 150th celebration next year.

Held explained that Schaefer Organs were built mostly in the Midwest. She shared that, as her father continued tuning the organs, “When he finished, he always played Bach’s ‘Toccata in D Minor,’ and that’s going to be our first selection today.”

The single-strain lines of Bach’s melody immediately filled the room. After sustained chords, Dr. Whitmore played the driving rhythms and complicated musical passages with the majesty of an organ and worship space even grander than Almena’s historic church. One of the concert-goers, Alice Welter, wife of Dcn. Steve and a parishioner for more than 30 years, said afterward she didn’t know the organ could sound the way Dr. Whitmore played it.

For three selections, attendees were invited to stand and sing along. This showcased the organ’s primary purpose of accompanying prayer and worship. The final sing-along hymn was “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” one of the church’s oldest hymns typically used during Eucharistic benediction.

The other musical selections were all religious including tributes to Mary with a meditation on “Ave Maria” composed by Dr. Whitmore’s predecessor at the Austin Cathedral, Philip E. Baker, and Franz Schubert’s well-known “Ave Maria.”

The grand finale to the recital was the “Sortie in F” by 19th-century French composer Cesar Frank. Dr. Whitmore explained that “sortie” meant postlude and was intended to be played after the Mass’s recessional hymn, but that he hoped those present would stay in their pews to listen to the entire piece.

As soon as silence returned to the church, applause erupted and a standing ovation followed. Dr. Whitmore expressed his thanks and greeted attendees afterward as attendees made their way to the reception at the parish center next door.

Current organist Kathy Rockow shared her memories of the nuns who played in the church when she was a child. One of those was Sr. Dominica Effertz, OSM, who had travelled from Ladysmith to be present at the concert. Sr. Dominica taught at the Sacred Heart parish school (open from 1906-1966) from 1950-1955.

“She taught me,” Rockow said, smiling at her former teacher. “I’m not great,” she added, “but I get the job done.” She said that the pipe organ was silent for many years as the organist couldn’t do the steps to the loft. Someone bought a small organ, now in the parish center, to be played from the front of the church.

“After about 30 years, finally I decided, ‘I can do that.’” Rockow set about getting the pipe organ serviced, and once she began playing for regular Masses, ensured the spring and fall tuning was kept up as the weather changed. Fred Hall from Frederic came before the recital and reviewed the entire organ and all the mechanics. He said he was pleased by the “good shape” it was in.