For the love of organs

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 20th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: one man’s love for pipe organs.

Now, the first one for the modern ages, and modern is italicized, came in the 1,500. It gained popularity quickly. Churches and cathedrals all around the world installed them.

EICHER: But today a number of old churches are closing their doors and many historic organs are also being lost along the way.

So a man from Queens, New York, has made it his life’s work to try to save them.

Turns out, the organ he’s worked hardest to protect, though, might be the one he cannot protect.  WORLD Radio’s Sarah Schweinsberg has our story.

SARAH SCHWEINSBERG, REPORTER: Keith Bigger’s gray head hunches over an organ keyboard. His fingers craft chords from memory as his feet dance across the pedals.

BIGGER: I just dreamed of one day being a concert organist and never happened. But….

The organ music echoes off the rounded ceiling of the Baptist Temple church sanctuary, Brooklyn’s oldest Baptist church. The console at the front of the sanctuary is just a small part of the massive pipe organ. Thousands of pipes and wire cables lay hidden in the walls.

BIGGER: It’s now 100 years old and it’s electropneumatic. So there’s cables running throughout the building and the pipes are in three chambers here, here and in the back. Yeah. And it’s really five organs in one.

The 72-year-old Bigger spent his career working full time as a technician for a phone company, but since childhood his true interest has been organs—particularly this one.

BIGGER: It was my burning bush at age 4. That’s when I first saw it.

The year was 1950. Bigger’s parents attended a potluck at the Baptist Temple. Bigger got bored and made a break for the church sanctuary.

BIGGER: I snuck up here and saw this, and I thought to myself, boy, this is bigger than than one in my church. I got to come back and hear it one day.

After that, Bigger became incurably interested in music. He began taking organ lessons in high school. Bigger also began to teach himself how to repair them… piecing together his own organ at home and repairing another at a local church.  

He also kept his eye out for historic churches that were closing or being sold. So far he’s rescued three historic organs in New York from becoming scrap.

But he never forgot about the pipe organ at the Baptist Temple. In 1986, Bigger heard that a leak in the church’s roof severely damaged the organ, so he set to work repairing it. It soon became apparent that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix.

BIGGER: When I started counting out all the pipes that were strewn all over the place, I found out of the 986 pipes in that room, 525 of them were missing. But you see once you have a vision, things like that don’t stop you.

After working at the phone company all day, Bigger would travel from Queens down to Brooklyn each night to work on the organ. It was four years before it even played.

BIGGER: When I got here the console was in pieces.

Bigger points out just a fraction of the parts that needed repairing on the organ’s keyboards and controls.

BIGGER: So I spent a good year or more restoring the console. Most of a lot of the failure was due to the contact failure, oxide had built up on the contacts and it wouldn’t conduct, and also these felt bushings under the keys, they were worn out and so they were all replaced as well.

But Bigger wasn’t done yet. He wanted the organ to be perfect. So he spent 17 more years fine-tuning every part of the organ’s pipes, valves, wiring and knobs… all without pay.

Bigger doesn’t have any formal training, so he says he relied on God to help him fix it.

BIGGER: Now oftentimes not knowing I would sit here and say, okay, God, what do I do next? And he would tell me what to do.

Bigger never married, and decided it was easier to sleep at the church in a side room than travel all the way home each night.

BIGGER: I said to the administrator, in the choir room there’s a mattress somebody left there. Can I sleep over? I started sleeping over for six nights a week. It’s extended into 21 years.

Bigger says those years were very rewarding.The organ was featured in dozens of concerts.

BIGGER: While it was playing here we had concerts. We had silent film shows, and people came and they loved it. Every year we did the Messiah here three hours the complete with the instrument.

But then in 2010, tragedy struck. On a hot summer day, an electric fire broke out in the church sanctuary walls. More than a third of the organ’s 2,500 pipes were damaged. Bigger also lost nearly all of his expensive repair tools.

BIGGER: These tools were handcrafted. Some of them by tool makers and to my specifications.

Bigger says it was a devastating setback, but that all along he knew the organ wasn’t his.

BIGGER: Okay, God, if you want to destroy what you gave me to do for a bunch of years that’s OK with me. I didn’t take it personally. I just learned to give everything to God.

And he started to work on the organ… again. And got it playing.

Today, the Baptist Temple sanctuary is still unrepaired. It looks like an old attic: filled with decorations, chairs and maintenance equipment. Some of the walls are still burned out revealing the organ’s hidden pipes.

The church owners may restore the sanctuary, or they may sell the building as is. That could mean the organ is removed and sold as well. But Bigger says that’s OK. He just hopes his work has taught a younger generation to love the organ.

And 36-year-old John Hunter is a part of that generation. He’s one of several organists who practice here in the evenings.

Hunter first heard the Baptist Temple organ as a preschooler in the the 80s, when Bigger first started repairing it. Hunter is now a choir director and organist and says he wants to carry on Bigger’s legacy of caring for organs.

JOHN: That’d be nice to see if I can learn how to do what he does. Keep the thing going, you know, because after, after he goes, who knows who’s going to be here to take care of the organ? 

As Hunter continues to play, Keith Bigger keeps one hand on the organ’s console and smiles.

BIGGER: I have extended my giftedness to others so they can benefit, and I just am thrilled with seeing the others have the joy of my labors.  

For WORLD Radio, I’m Sarah Schweinsberg reporting from Brooklyn, New York.

(Photo/Sarah Schweinsberg)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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