A Brief History of the Organ of Saint Martin of Tours

The Following is taken from the 1993 Organ Historical Society Convention handbook

German Catholics in Louisville, mostly from Bavaria and other southern German states, worshipped initially at St. Louis Church, the predecessor of the Cathedral of the Assumption. In 1838, St. Boniface Church was organized as the first German Catholic congregation in the city. Within fifteen years, the need for another “Uptown” German Catholic church led to the establishment of St. Martin of Tours under the guidance of Father Leander Streber, who was to shepherd the church until 1881, and under whose leadership a program of fine church music took firm root. The church building was dedicated August 20th, 1854 and enlarged in 1860.

A variety of disasters and near-disasters have threatened St. Martin’s Church over the years. In August of 1855, “Know-Nothing” rioters were barely diverted from a destructive attack on the building. The church itself narrowly escaped damage from two fires, one in the School and one in the Rectory, but was not so fortunate in a 1929 tornado, or during the 1937 Ohio River Flood. In recent years, it appeared that the aging parish would not survive time, indifference, and its decaying, urban neighborhood. By 1979, it seemed inevitable that the parish would be forced to close, recalled Rev. Vernon Robertson, appointed that year as pastor. Faced with a deteriorating church building and an average Sunday attendance of 37, Father Robertson reached a decision.

“Since there weren’t any people, I decided to fill it with music,” Fr. Robertson said. “We chose good music that was right for the building. I knew it wasn’t a guitar place.”

The organ was tuned, revealing the splendor of its sound and the unexpected beauty of the building’s acoustics. Fr. Robertson hired an organist and a small group of singers to perform sacred choral music and the Latin Propers at Mass.

It was the first step toward the slow but steady revitalization of the parish. Gradually, worshippers began to return, drawn by the music, reverent liturgies, colorful stained glass windows, vaulted ceiling, marble sanctuary, and life-size statues of the Saints.

“We just began with good music,” Fr. Robertson said. “Pretty soon, people who were tired of bad music and ugly buildings started coming.”

Attributed to Johann Heinrich Koehnken of Cincinnati, the first organ at St. Martin’s arrived in 1861, and appears to have been rebuilt and enlarged, perhaps by Koehnken and Grimm, in 1876. In February of that year, the church’s centennial history relates.

Fifteen big heavy trucks and two small ones arrived at St. Martin’s last week. A few days later, two men arrived from Munich. They quickly opened the boxes and promptly and deftly assembled all the parts and installed the organ, the largest and finest in all the West, due to ceaseless efforts of the pastor, Fr. Leander.

In 1894, Farrand & Votey installed the present instrument, which incorporates some older pipes, most likely from the previous organ. In 1949, Joseph Ruf supplied a new console, which by 1978 had fallen into disrepair. Sam Bowerman kept the organ going for some years.  Several proposals for renovation were shelved until July 1990, when Keith Norrington, just back from the Organ Historical Society Convention in Wisconsin, informed Fr. Robertson that the O.H.S. hoped to showcase the Farrand & Votey at their convention in 1993. Under the guiding hand of Fr. Robertson, and with the encouragement of Dr. Linda Morrison, the Director of Music and Organist of the Parish (1987-2008), the organ was renovated by the Miller Pipe Organ Co. of Louisville, who provided it with a new console in the style of the original. They also provided a new wind system.

The organ was originally pumped through a series of “feeder-bellows” which were operated by a water motor. When the street car line was installed on Shelby Street, 500 volt D.C. current became available and a motor, provided by the Ottis Elevator Co. of Springfiled, Massachusetts, and fitted with a “Weston Voltmeter” made in Newark, New Jersey, was installed to drive the water motor, which in turn operated the feeder-bellows system. When A.C. current became available, a unit was installed in the tower of the church which converted the A.C. current to D.C., which the D.C. motor, whichran the water motor, which in turn operated the feeder-bellows system. Finally, everything was bypassed except the two reservoirs under the organ and an organ blower was installed in the side of the tower opposite the A.C./D.C. unit.

Stops which may have been recycled in whole or in part by Farrand & Votey from the previous organ, include the Open Diapason 16’, the Bourdon 16’, and the Dulciana 16’ in the Pedal. The great Double Open Diapason 16’ has six wood basses, and the Quint 2 2/3’ is tapered, as is the Swell Gemshorn 4’; the Swell Bourdon 16’ has three metal chimney flute trebles; the Choir Quintadena-basses, and the Choir Rohr Flöte 4’ have scribed mouths in German fashion and adjustable caps. The Great Mixture is actually III-IV. The Swell Oboe 8’ appears to be of French manufacture, leading to speculation that it may have come from the Cavaille-Coll firm.

The organ is currently used for Mass 6 days each week, and is in need of extensive restoration.  Please visit our organ restoration page for more information.  Please consider donating to our Organ Restoration Fund.  Thank you for your generosity!