The powerful sound of St. John’s organ and the story of its evolution in the church’s current Humberside home over the last century is closely linked with the parish’s previous home on Dundas St. and St. John’s Road, as well as with several other churches. For most of St. John’s history, the organ was central to the musical component of church services. In recent years, however, the inclusion of the organ in Sunday services has been less frequent, yet it remains a special treat to the ears when it is played.
Much of the musical mechanism of St. John’s current organ can be traced to the pipe organ built by the Lye Organ Company of Toronto and installed in St. John’s second church sometime before 1909 and then moved into the new Humberside church in 1923. The original organ< operation was dependent upon a volunteer, usually a choir boy, working a pump handle, although in 1910 a motor was installed for blowing the pipes. The work of moving the organ to Humberside was done by C. Frank Legge, a member of the parish, who also managed the subsequent maintenance, modifications and rebuilds of the instrument.
The most substantive rebuilt of St. John’s pipe organ was undertaken in 1947, using the old pipes and case work, but with new working parts. The organ console, where the organist sits to play, was originally installed on the right (Epistle) side of the Chancel, close to the pipes at the back wall of the church. In 1950, the console was moved directly across to the left (Gospel) side of the Chancel. In 1953, a set of Trumpet pipes were added to the organ, which had originally been part of a church in Winnipeg, followed by a set of 16-foot Trombone pipes that came to St. John’s via other churches in Montreal and Toronto. After a major cleaning in 1959, a variety of other components, sourced from a variety of places, were added to St. John’s organ over the next 20 years.
Percy Wicker MacDonald (1905-1963) served as organist during the parish’s first 40 years on Humberside. He was also a noted musician, teacher and composer and his sudden death began a period with a series of organists staying for shorter periods. Less attention paid to the maintenance of the organ until 1995-96 and the hiring of James Bailey as St. John’s Director of Music and organist. James was also a professional architect and well-connected to Toronto’s organ community, co-authoring a book with Alan Jackson, The Organs of Toronto, published in 2002. Read the St. John's section here.
Working with Jackson, an organ builder, James focused on restoring, tuning, and upgrading St. John’s organ, starting in 1996 with rebuilding the organ chamber, which involved cleaning all the pipework. Renewed attention to the state of the organ was also prompted by a leaking roof. The work on the organ also facilitated the launch of a “Music at St. John’s” concert series, which proved successful.
By early 2000, it was clear that further work on the organ was necessary, but funds were limited and there were several competing demands. However, in the summer of 2000, St. John’s received an anonymous donation with which it was possible to upgrade the organ console. A used console was available that had been built in 1929 for the concert hall at Regina College, which later became the University of Regina.
In the early 1990s, the concert hall was demolished, and the entire organ was sold to St. Andrews Presbyterian Church of Sarnia. But, as the console was not needed in Sarnia, it was sold to St. John’s and installed by Alan Jackson & Co. at a more prominent location closer to the nave altar. On November 19, 2000, a special “Blessing of the New Organ Console” was included in St. John’s Sunday service.
To learn more about St. John’s rich history, visit: sjwt.ca/100th
Contact Christopher Rutty – firstname.lastname@example.org – with your
historical contributions in support of the SJWT-100th, and to volunteer
to assist with Doors Open Toronto, as well other special activities and
events being planned to celebrate St. John’s 100 years on Humberside.