A Traditional Organ for Tomorrow:

St. Francis de Sales Oratory Announces Purchase of 

World-Class Pipe Organ Built by Karl Wilhelm


St. Francis de Sales Oratory, an apostolate of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, with the blessing of the Archbishop of St. Louis, is pleased to announce the signing of the contract for Karl Wilhelm Opus 123, a three-manual and pedal, 58-rank freestanding mechanical action organ. Signed May 1, 2019, the contract includes the cost of transportation, installation, and tonal finishing at the Oratory. To finance the purchase and necessary updates to the existing infrastructure, the Oratory has established an Organ Committee and launched a fundraising campaign for $400,000.

Previously installed in a church in Pittsburgh, the organ contains 2,670 pipes in five white oak freestanding cases. Thus the instrument is more than double the size of the Oratory’s existing three-manual and pedal, 22-rank gallery organ from 1924 by the Wicks Organ Company of Highland, IL. The Wicks instrument replaced an even smaller two-manual and pedal, 15-rank instrument by J.G. Pfeffer & Sons of St. Louis from 1897 which was subsequently rebuilt and enlarged by Gustav Treu in 1909 upon relocation and installation into the current church. This earlier instrument survives today and continues to serve St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church of Altus, AR, where it was installed in 1925. Like the original instrument by Pfeffer & Sons, the new Wilhelm organ contains entirely mechanical key-and-stop action and is hand built using the most traditional construction techniques so that it can withstand centuries of use.

Although the existing Wicks organ is an historic instrument and an important example of the American Romantic movement of organ building from the first quarter of the 20th century, it lacks substantial historical integrity as several original components, including the console and some important ranks of original pipework, are missing. Even when new, the Wicks organ was inadequate to fill the soaring Gothic Revival church. Built at tremendous cost and dedicated in 1908, the church was recently voted the most beautiful in the nation. It is not impossible that the modest size and quality of the 1924 instrument was due to outstanding mortgage payments for the church. There is evidence that the instrument was re-voiced in the 1930s and the pressures raised to attempt to compensate for its size.

The fundamental problem of restoring the 1924 organ is not that several aspects of the original design must be recreated to replace missing original components, but that the instrument is inadequate both musically and mechanically for the demands placed upon it by the Oratory. With the projected costs of a full restoration or rebuild approaching a half-million dollars, a feasibility study was conducted in late 2018 to determine if there could be a more efficient use of funds. This study concluded that the best path would be to secure a second-hand instrument which would simultaneously solve the many engineering problems of the existing design and provide adequate musical scope. The challenge would be in locating one of appropriate size, scale, and visual design to complement the dramatic and visually complex interior and superb acoustics of the church.

Director of Sacred Music Steven Ball, an experienced organ consultant, led the search for the right instrument throughout North America and Europe. After studying dozens of possible transplant organs that might be appropriate, four were selected as finalists. Several considerations led the investigation in the direction of the Wilhelm instrument, including the exquisite detail of the casework, extremely traditional methods of construction and voicing, and the overall tonal design which hearkens back to the original German ancestry of the parish. The instrument is well suited, in particular, for Baroque music, the accurate performance of which is central to the musical needs of the Oratory.  

Finally, the fact that master organ builder Karl Wilhelm has agreed to come out of retirement to oversee the installation and voicing of this instrument personally as his last major project has played a tremendously important role in the decision to proceed with the purchase of this particular instrument. Raised in Weikersheim, Germany, he apprenticed with August Laukhuff of Weikersheim, Germany, and with W.E. Renkeutz of Nehren bei Tübingen, Germany. After briefly working with Metzler & Söhne of Dietikon, Switzerland, and later with North America’s oldest organ-building firm, Casavant Frères of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, he founded Karl Wilhelm, Inc. of St. Hyacinthe. In 1966 he relocated the firm to Mont St.-Hilaire, Quebec, and the shop remained active building organs until the early 2000s. The firm has built hundreds of organs, not only across the United States, but also in Europe and Asia.    

The Oratory has launched a fundraising effort for $400,000. In addition to the actual purchase of the instrument, there are additional costs associated with the infrastructure to correct substantial existing problems. This fundraising effort includes the necessary updates to the electrical and lighting in the gallery, restoration and extensive repairs to the original 1908 choir loft floor, and improvements to the existing infrastructure which the removal of the existing organ will make possible. Important sponsorship opportunities will be announced soon.