Century-old organ gets new life and this Sydney church wants you to play it

The 108-year-old pipe organ in Cape Breton's oldest church is back in business, just in time for tourist season.

Instrument at St. George's Anglican Church is back in business after loving repairs

Jim McNeil of Glace Bay brings out the best in the 108-year-old organ at St. George's Anglican Church in Sydney. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The 108-year-old pipe organ in Cape Breton's oldest church is back in business, just in time for the tourist season.

St. George's Anglican Parish in Sydney, built in 1785 by British soldiers using stones from the conquered French Fortress of Louisbourg, hasn't hosted regular services for years.

However, the church is open to tourists when cruise ships are in town or for other special occasions, and the old organ was in need of some repairs.

Michelle Gardiner, chair of the church's heritage committee, said the organ is one of the main attractions, and its soaring sounds can stop passersby — even those who live or work nearby.

Michelle Gardiner, chair of the St. George's Anglican Church heritage committee, says the building was erected in Sydney in 1785 using stones from the Fortress of Louisbourg. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

"They'll just come in and they'll just say, 'I'm from Sydney, I've just never been here before,' and they kind of feel a little uncomfortable, to say 'Should we be here?' And we're like 'Of course we want you here,'" she said.

"We want our cruise ship visitors here, but we really would love to have you here because you're part of the community and this is your church. It's part of your heritage."

People are often amazed that they are allowed to play the organ, if they know how.

"We encourage people to use it when they come into the church," Gardiner said. "It fills this space with a joyful noise ... and can give you goosebumps.

"I think it brings life to the building when it is played. People really stop and sit and stay for a little while."

McNeil sometimes plays the organ for cruise ship tourists or for other special occasions. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The pipe organ in St. George's is considered a small one, but its design and construction and the church's architecture combine to make a beautiful sound, she said.

And its age and the history of the building add to the experience, Gardiner said.

"I think you feel it when you're here," she said. "You go back in time, because you don't hear organs play that often anymore, but you hear it here, and it's an organ from 1910 and that's when organs were king.

"We've had people play the organ that are quite exceptional. We've had people play who were at Westminster Abbey. We've had the organist who plays for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir come in and play.

"We had a gentleman last week who said, 'This made my entire trip getting to play this organ.'"

Jean Francois Mailhot, right, is a trained organ builder who also repairs the instruments. He says the organ at St. George's needs to be protected for its historical value. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Jean Francois Mailhot is a trained organ builder who has been servicing the instruments for more than 35 years, and is an actor at the Fortress of Louisbourg during tourist season.

He has repaired St. George's organ several times at a heavily discounted price because of his French heritage and love for organs.

"All the stones outside are coming from the fortress, so I have a little something in my heart," Mailhot said.

"It belongs to history. It's over 100 years old, so we should have some respect for it and it fits in this church perfectly. It's not a cathedral here. It's not a huge church so they don't need a huge organ.

"I'm very proud to give my time to this church and to the organ. For me, organs are like babies, so we have to take care of them."

It is especially gratifying to know the organ is also being well used, Mailhot said.

"When the organs are in balconies, or in the back of the church or the front ... [people] don't have access. They can't look. They can't touch, so here it's fantastic."

Animators greet cruise ship visitors to St. George's church in Sydney last year. They are there in part to welcome passersby into the church. (Hal Higgins/CBC)

Jim McNeil was organist at the Anglican church in Glace Bay for 39 years. He sometimes plays the organ at St. George's for tourists, and is thankful for Mailhot's generous work.

"Every organ has its own character," McNeil said. "This organ is very tiny, but I think it's an interesting period piece, and thanks to the work of Mr. Mailhot it's in beautiful working condition right now. When I first played this a couple of years ago when all this began, it was unplayable, and he's done wonders with it and charged little or nothing.

"It's a sweet organ. It's a small organ. It doesn't have a whole lot of the colour that larger organs would have. It's kind of a situation where you like everything in its own way. You can have a Lincoln limousine or you can have an MG, and they're entirely different, but you like each one of them because of its own characteristics, and this one certainly has a lot of character.

"I think that every organ evokes feelings because more than any other instrument, each pipe organ is different from every other pipe organ. There are different characters to, say, one grand piano as opposed to another, but not nearly to the same extent."

McNeil says the organ in St. George's is small, but sweet. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Some music wouldn't be played on a small organ like the one in St. George's, which has only seven stops, McNeil said.

"Certain of the French compositions, and Spanish and others ... would be designed for much larger organs that had an awful lot of colour. Instruments with four manuals and 60 or 80 or even over 100 stops," he said.

"But given the instrument that it is, it performs quite well. I just think it's a lovely old instrument that's an ideal match for this building and it acquits itself admirably, and it's a pleasure to play it.

"Certainly some of the great works by Johann Sebastian Bach are playable on this organ, and if I can do that, that's my favourite thing to do. I love the sound of Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring on this organ. It works beautifully here."

About the Author

Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 32 years. He has spent the last 14 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.