Mission Church

Geo. S. Hutchings, Opus 140, 1897


Properly known as the Basilica and Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Mission Church was erected between 1876 and 1878 of locally quarried Roxbury puddingstone and Quincy granite, its 215-foot towers not completed until 1910.  Long associated with the Redemptorist Fathers’ missions to the disenfranchised, Mission Church is one of fifty-four minor basilicas in the U.S., entitled to its owncoat of arms and a papal umbrellina, kept half-open to signify the Basilica’s readiness to host His Holiness at any moment.  Alexandre Guilmant played the organ shortly after its installation. - Ross Wood  

The Redemptorist Fathers and Brothers came to Roxbury in 1871, purchasing an historic and choice estate, high on the hill overlooking the marshes that were to become the South End and Back Bay of Boston. Tradition has it that this house, known first as "Brinley Place" and later as "Pierpont Castle," was where the official negotiations in reference to the Stamp Act were carried out. Later, on March 13, 1776, General Washington assembled his officers here and directed their movements, which resulted in the evacuation of Boston by the British army.1 On this property, the Redemptorists built a modest frame church, and on January 29, 1871, dedicated it to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.


A small organ built by the firm of J.H. Willcox & Co., consisting of one manual and 8 stops, was installed shortly thereafter. George Hutchings, the building partner in the firm, later listed this organ as his Opus 3. As the area developed, plans for a larger church were prepared by Mr. William Schickel of New York, and the corner-stone was laid on May 28, 1876. The vast Romanesque stone edifice was dedicated on April 7, 1878, at which time the small Willcox organ was probably moved into the new church, as the old church was swung around and converted into part of the rectory, though the exact fate of this organ is unclear.

In the early 1890's, plans for improving and beautifying the interior of the church were undertaken, including "the building of a first-class organ."2 The local firm of Geo. S. Hutchings was contracted to build the new instrument, probably because of the earlier association with Willcox and the Redemptorists, and the fact that by the 1890's Hutchings was at the undisputed height of his craft. The scheme of the organ was developed by Edward J. McGoldrick, the organist of the church, in collaboration with the builder. Due to it's size and complexity, Hutchings' Opus 410 required more than a year to complete, but finally on September 26, 1897, the "magnificent electrical organ, considered to be the finest in the country, (was) dedicated."3 An elaborate religious and musical service was performed in the grand acoustical setting, attended by 2,500 people. The Boston Globe reported:

The magnificent new organ in the Mission Church, Roxbury, which now takes rank in its musical equipments with the finest in the world, was dedicated last evening. Solemn vespers were celebrated at 7:30. At the same time the congregation was treated to an excellent concert, comprising selections from the works of the great masters.

For the last two months the parishioners have seen their organ being slowly put together, until every detail was complete. It has been building for more than a year, and the day of its dedication to the service of God is one that has been looked forward to with much pleasurable anticipation.

The occasion has been one of joy for members of the parish, who have been looking forward to an organ befitting the noted church, and after years of patience and waiting, their earnest wishes are at last realized.

The installation of this organ, the work of a master hand, marks the completion of one of the grandest churches in the country. No expense has been spared, and the organ is a complete success in every particular.

Last evening the church shone with the brightness of its hundreds of electrical lights, the marble whiteness of the altar reflecting the rays from the incandescent globes and filling the church with a flood of light.

Shortly before 7:30 the organ pealed forth its melody, and to the strains of the processional, Allegro Marziale, by Alexander Guilmant, the procession of altar boys and clergy passed down the main aisle and took seats within the sanctuary.

The dedication service then began with the blessing of the organ. There followed two works by Theo. Dubois, The Fifth Word from the Passion for soloists and choir and the Moderato in F major, played by the famous recitalist B.J. Lang. Lang also played the Bach Fantasie in G major and an Improvisation. After a selection on the chimes, Benediction of the Most Blessed Sacrament was celebrated, accompanied by musical selections including the Ave Maria by Bach-Gounod and Tantum Ergo by Mendelssohn. The service ended with the March Cortege by Gounod.

It proved such a magnificent instrument and was so highly acclaimed that the famous French organist and composer, Alexandre Guilmant, was invited to give a recital on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. He in fact played two different programs on December 8 and 9, 1897. On Wednesday, at 8 o'clock, he opened with the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor. He also played two chorales by Bach, O Mensch bewein and In Dir ist Freude. The other major offerings were his own Fifth Sonata, the Pastorale by Franck and the Final in D by Lemmens. He also included an improvisation on a submitted theme. The noted music critic and organist, Philip Hale, reported in the Boston Journal:

The genius of Mr. Guilmant for improvisation is of international fame. Last evening the subject given by Mr. MacGoldrick, the organist of the Mission Church, was the theme of the Benedicamus Domino. Mr. Guilmant treated it with profound contrapuntal knowledge and dramatic yet ecclesiastical spirit. The improvisation was varied, yet always coherent and logical: solo stops of the organ were used not merely for ear tickling effect while the invention of the player halted or failed, but in the service of apparently inexhaustible invention. Toward the close there was a felicitous introduction of the Dresden Amen, a reminiscence also of Parsifal. The great audience forgot the sanctity of the church and broke into loud and long-continued applause, until Mr. Guilmant responded by bowing his thanks from the gallery.

The following afternoon at 3 o'clock he opened the program with the Prelude and Fugue in E flat by Bach. Also included were the Final by Franck and his own Sixth Sonata from manuscript, which Philip Hale said was played for the first time in America. As usual, he included an improvisation. Hale reported in the Boston Journal, "The theme given Mr. Guilmant for improvisation was Adeste Fidelis. His treatment of it was most admirable. A pastorale movement with occasional suggestions of the tune led into the hymn ingeniously harmonized, and variations were rich in surprising and bold progressions. After a display of the full organ, there was an ingenious return to the pastorale."

The organ, deemed a "noble instrument in a noble church,"4 was distinguished mechanically, musically and visually. Hutchings, with the help of his foreman, Ernest M. Skinner, had developed (and patented in 1896) the first successful electric action, which was here applied to key, stop and combination action. The elaborate combination action included seventeen pedal movements and eighteen adjustable pistons placed under their respective manuals, affecting all manual and pedal stops as well as the fifteen couplers. The installation included another Hutchings/Skinner patented invention, a compact three manual "bat-wing" console, connected to the organ only by a cable, which allowed it to be moved to any part of the gallery. The console also included a balanced swell and crescendo pedal. It is interesting to note, however, that the solo division was a on slider chest with pneumatic action, and did not employ their new electric action. Though it appears to have been planned for, it was added sometime after the dedication, as it does not appear on the specification listed in the program and the stops do not appear on the original junction board in the organ. Exactly when it was added remains unknown, although it may have been around the time that the church towers were completed in 1910.

Musically, the instrument was notable. Hutchings had sent Skinner to England where, in exchange for information regarding Hutchings' new electric action, Willis allowed him to copy information regarding their celebrated reeds. Hutchings used this information "in perfecting reed tone, on which I have been working for a number of years."5 The string tone was also unique, having been voiced in a manner which Hutchings had obtained from Carlton Michell, the English voicer who worked for him. Finally, Hutchings had perfected the winding system by using a large forge blower which supplied steady and abundant wind through a sizable high pressure reservoir located in the tower.

Visually, the organ is striking, as it spans the entire width of the nave, and from the gallery high above the floor, it is crowned just under the vaulting with a carved cross reminiscent of the cross atop the high altar more than two hundred feet away. Many of the carvings replicate details present in the church architecture, including the Romanesque arch and the capitals of the pillars. The photograph shown at left, presumably taken soon after completion, shows that the case was originally painted a cream color with accents, possibly gold tone, and the pipes were simply painted gold. Also, suspended from the great impost were two ornate hanging chandeliers to light the choir area. It is unclear exactly when the fa*ade pipes were so elaborately painted and the case given the wood grain tone we see today, but it probably occurred in the early 1950's when a major restoration of the interior of the church was undertaken. Today, it remains a beautiful example of ornate yet elegant organ architecture.

The organ remained essentially unaltered for 70 years, until in the 1960's the action (which, though innovative for 1897, was rather complicated) had deteriorated beyond repair. Many solutions were considered, including replacing the Hutchings with an electronic. Finally, the firm of Henri Lahaise & Son, members of which have cared for the instrument since Hutchings' death in 1913 (first while employees of Hook & Hastings), was contracted to rebuild the organ on a limited budget. It was decided that the action should be simplified and some tonal work be undertaken. Since the solo division was on a slider chest with pneumatic action, the other divisions were rebuilt to conform with this simple and reliable design. The new slider chests were patterned directly from the Hutchings toeboards. At this time a new console was also provided, though the bat-wing console still exists.

The tonal work, intended to brighten and expand the harmonic palette, was undertaken in consultation with Charlie Fisk. The reeds were voiced to keep their fiery quality on lower pressure. In the great, a new 4'; flute, 2'; nighthorn and 1 3/5' tierce were added. In the swell, a new separated cornet was added: 4'; koppelflote, 2 2/3' nazard, 2'; blockflote, 1 3/5' tierce, 1 1/3' larigot, as well as a new III/IV/V (from middle C) rank mixture to replace the original cornet mixture which was rather dull. The 4'; saxophone was altered slightly by removing the "bells" at the top of the resonator, giving it a slightly more shawm character. In the pedal, a new 4'; and 2'; flute, as well as a new four rank mixture were included. The solo chest was rebuilt to house the new, rather baroque, choir division based on the 8'; gedeckt and 4'; principal, which also included a new 4'; flute, 2'; principal (from Hutchings Opus 412), two rank sesquialtera and four rank mixture. Subsequently, not all of the original pipework was incorporated, the most notable omissions being the choir foundations and the solo tuba. However, much of this pipework had simply stood in the original choir toeboards for the past 30 years, awaiting the chance to sing again.

The rededication concert was held on April 13, 1971, and included both an organ recital by Frederick Swann and an ecumenical prayer service. Swann began by playing the Deo Gracias by Arthur Wills, the Sonata II by Hindemith, the Fantasie in A by Franck and the Dorian Toccata and Fugue by Bach. There followed the hymn Praise to the Lord, a rather curious mix of readings and prayers, hymns and homilies, followed by the hymn Now Thank We All Our God. The concert then resumed with Even Song by John LaMontaine, Three Preludes on Southern Hymn Tunes by Gardner Read, and the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue by Searle Wright.

In January of 1996, the church began a year-long celebration of the 125th anniversary of the founding of the parish and the dedication of the original church. A campaign was begun to raise funds to refurbish parts of the Basilica that were in need of attention. It was decided that one of the projects undertaken would be the great organ, as the centennial of its dedication approached. Finally in early 1997, a contract was again signed with Henri Lahaise & Son to correct some of the shortfalls of the 1960's renovation.

Two major areas of concentration were the reinstallation of the remaining 1897 pipework and an attempt to make the judicious 1968 additions fit more closely into the overall scheme of the instrument. Since the original choir chest was intact, a section was rebuilt using the same guidelines as before to house the foundations of the choir division (pattern a new slider chest directly from the original toeboards). The choir has now regained its 8'; open diapason, 8'; geigen principal, 8'; dolce and 8'; concert flute (which had earlier been moved to the great in place of the dopple flute). The original 4'; flute has also been reinstalled in the choir, replacing the 1968 spindle flute which did not match the character of the division. Another section of the chest was rebuilt to hold the tuba, the only remaining stop from the "floating" solo division, which is again playable from any manual directly through drawknob. To preserve an example, the tuba chest was rebuilt using the 1897 Hutchings/Skinner action. The remaining portion of the choir chest has been left intact, as well.

On the great, the original 8'; dopple flute (a true "dopple" with two mouths) has returned to its original toeboard, as well as an 8'; gamba. The 1968 2'; Nighthorn (which had been fashioned out of an 8'; principal!) was never successful, and was replaced by the 1968 choir spindle flute, repitched and revoiced to match the rest of the flute chorus. At this time, all of the pipework of the exposed great and choir divisions was removed and thoroughly cleaned, including the reeds. Also, as the pitch had slipped over the years (to around A=428!), this was the perfect opportunity to return the pitch to A=435.

If one compares the original specification with the present one, it is clear that the 1997 instrument is much more versatile. Other than the fifteen ranks of mixtures on the great and the five rank cornet mixture in the swell, the 1897 specification included only a twelfth and fifteenth in the great and a two foot flute in the swell and choir. The current specification, while keeping a broad choice of 8'; tone, also includes a wide choice of mutations and upper work. In fact, the upperwork in the swell is some of the most lovely new pipework in the organ. One portion of the contract that remains to be executed involves the chimes. A wonderful set are located just inside the dome, high above the nave floor. It is impractical to leave them in the dome, and they will hopefully be rebuilt and relocated to the triphorium just at the crossing, thereby preserving their distant sound. - text from the The Northeast Organist website

Photo by Len Levasseur

Photo by Len Levasseur