Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating
Organist Robert Harker plays the virutal pipe organ at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Scappoose.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Clarice Keating

Organist Robert Harker plays the virutal pipe organ at St. Wenceslaus Parish in Scappoose.
SCAPPOOSE — Only in the digital age can small St. Wenceslaus Parish have music that rivals in timbre the organs of some of Europe’s most famous cathedrals.
 
On one Sunday Mass, the choir may be accompanied by the 1874 Schyven/Van Bever organ of the Notre-Dame in Laeken Brussels, Belgium. The following Sunday, liturgical music may be presented in the booming tones of the 1979 neo-baroque Alfred Fuhrer organ from the monastery church of Riddagshausen in Germany.
 
When the parish's music ministry wants a new pipe organ, someone just downloads it.
 
St. Wenceslaus’ newly installed three manual virtual pipe organ is the first of its kind to be installed in a Catholic church in Oregon. Played through large, high quality speakers and controlled by MIDI (musical instrument digital interface), the organ sounds authentic because each pull, each pedal push, each key pressed activates notes and sounds recorded from famous organs. The recordings, or samples, are of such a high fidelity they even capture the creak of the swell box and other imperfections, which give each instrument its own unique character.


With price tags that start around $150,000, expensive pipe organs are often just dreams for small, budget-constrained parishes like St. Wenceslaus.
 
The virtual organ is powered by Hauptwerk, a computer program available for a relatively small license fee, which supports “freeware,” or free pipe organ sample sets.  A team of volunteers helped remodel the choir loft, which hadn’t been used in two decades, tearing out sound-diminishing carpeting and building platforms for the various components of the new virtual organ

A donor gave the church a 1963 Allen TC-1 organ, and organist Robert Harker removed nearly 200 pounds of 1960s analogue hardware from the inside of the instrument; rewired the organ, soldering nearly 300 new wires into place; disassembled the console; added a third keyboard and a flatscreen computer monitor, along with about 35 new general and divisional pistons; and then reassembled it, connecting it all to a desktop computer, where the organ samples are loaded.  

Including the remodel efforts, the entire project cost around $6,200, an amazingly low figure for a pipe organ. The St. Wenceslaus virtual pipe organ plays and sounds so much like a real pipe organ that, to the untrained ear, it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference, parishioners say.
 
Patricia and Albert Havlik have deep roots in the parish. Albert’s grandfather, John Havlik Sr., donated the property where the church now sits. They have watched the parish expand and evolve over the years, and they can attest that the parish instrumentation has never sounded better.

Many congregants are so startled by the elegant sounds of a 100-year-old organ, they turn around to figure out where the music is coming from, Patricia said.
 
“We went from being behind the curve to setting the curve,” Albert said.

For more information about the process of installing virtual pipe organs, contact Portland-area organist Robert Harker at 503-734-9851.