St. John's Abbey Church gets a pipe organ worthy of its space

One section of an organ at a church.
One section of the Holtkamp-Pasi Organ expansion at the St Johns Abbey Church in Collegeville. With the 2,600-pipe expansion, the total number of pipes now reaches 6,000
Courtesy of St. John’s Abbey

Updated: Aug. 20, 5 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 19, 4 a.m.

For half a century, the St. John’s Abbey Church in Collegeville has attracted visitors from around the world. Now, after a huge expansion of its pipe organ, enthusiasts say it finally has an instrument to match its modernist splendor.

The interior of a church.
The interior of the Marcel Breuer-designed Abbey Church, completed in 1961.
Courtesy of St. John’s Abbey

With its honeycomb-shaped stained glass windows, and corrugated walls of wood-textured concrete, there is nothing ordinary about the Marcel Breuer-designed, Bauhaus-inspired abbey church. 

Completed in 1961, its contrasts and trapezoidal open space play on every emotion. The Holtkamp-Pasi organ does the same.

The original organ also dates back to 1961 and was built by Walter Holtkamp of the Holtkamp Organ Company of Cleveland. The Abbey Church’s massive open space allows sounds to echo for up to four seconds. 

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K.C. Marrin, an experienced local organ builder who volunteered on the expansion of the project, says the original instrument was undersized. 

“It's a world-renowned church. It's a real world-renowned acoustic, it would take an instrument of unusual creativity to actually fill it” he said.

The task of expanding the organ to match the scale of the Abbey Church went to organ builder Martin Pasi, an Austrian now based in Roy, Wa.  

“The goal was to get enough power on the sound, to really fill that huge room, which the old organ was never able really to do,” said Pasi.

Pipes lay in pews.
Pipes built by Martin Pasi and Abbey Woodworking lay in the abbey church before their installation.
Courtesy of St. John’s Abbey

His expansion design called for the addition of 2,600 pipes, taking the total to 6,000. The organ sits in a loft at the front of the church. Marrin, who tunes the organ regularly, knows his way around the organ loft. 

A visitor is soon two stories above the floor of the church, surrounded by the instrument. In this small section of the organ, there are hundreds of pipes that Pasi built by hand. The smallest ones are the size of a pinky finger.

Playing the organ on this day is Father Bob Koopmann. He raised much of the $1.3 million needed for the project himself. He says the new 32 foot pipes bring new sensations to the space. 

“You feel it when you're when you're here in the building in the church,” he said. “You feel the vibration, it's absolutely incredible. We never had that before.”

Large pipes for an organ.
The largest pipes of the Pasi expansion in the corner of the church. Built by Abbey Woodworking, these pipes reach up to 32 feet tall.
Courtesy of St. John’s Abbey Woodworking.

The biggest pipes weigh up to 850 pounds. The sound resonates in your chest cavity.

You can move around the church and hear the organ’s reverberation and different frequencies. Pasi says the beautiful acoustics was one reason he was excited about the project. 

“You know, the sound, this acoustic sound is just amazing,” he said. “How we can grab your senses.”

While Pasi made most of the pipes, the abbey’s woodworking shop constructed the largest.  

Michael Barone, host of the long-running Your Classical APM show Pipedreams, describes the organ as the ultimate paint box.  

“It's filled with colors, rich in dynamic potential, and can be applied to music of pretty much every sort,” he said.

The organ is played during daily monastic prayer and for concerts and hymn festivals. 

For organ builder Marrin, it’s the potential of the organ that’s exciting. He likes the idea of contributing to future events about which he knows nothing and to the performances by organists who will play it years from now. 

“If you build it well, they will be able to bring something of theirs to what you've left for them and make something new,” he says. “And I think that's a gift that is worth spending a lifetime you know, pursuing.”

That something new begins  Sept. 18 during the ceremony for blessing the pipe organ. That program will include the world premiere of an organ piece by William Bolcom.  

And now it seems St. Johns will get more than just a bigger better pipe organ out of the expansion. Pasi likes the campus so much he’s planning on moving his entire shop to St. John’s in 2023. 

Correction (Aug. 20, 2021): A previous version of this story misspelled the name of K.C. Marrin. The story has been updated.