For those of us in Canada who have a passionate love for the pipe organ and its history, there is no need to look further than our own backyard: a gold mine of glorious history is sitting right here in the youngest province of the Confederation, Newfoundland and Labrador, which became Canada’s tenth province in 1949. Prior to joining Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador was a Crown colony and in fact the oldest colony of the British Empire in North America. Thus, as we uncover the history of pipe organs past and present, it is not surprising to find in this eastern province a loyalty to the old country, Britain. A profound respect and affection for British standards of quality can be readily observed and it was quite common for the principal churches in the colony to turn to Britain rather than to America for their organs.
The earliest pipe organ found in our research that could be factually dated was constructed in 1853 by the British builder Thomas J. Robson for St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Cathedral, in St. John’s. Taking this date as a starting point, we have a period of 96 years, ending when Newfoundland and Labrador joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949. During this period, a total of 52 pipe organs were installed in the British colony: 36 were of British make, eleven were from Canada, and two from the United States of America. We did not find any information regarding the origin and manufacturer of the other three instruments. The date of installation could not be determined for eight of the 52 organs.
After Newfoundland and Labrador joined the Canadian Confederation in 1949 and up to the present day, a total of eighteen organs were installed in the province, all manufactured in Canada and all still currently in use. The instrument built by Létourneau Organs as well as sixteen of the instruments built by Casavant Frères remain in the province, their conditions ranging from good to excellent. Another of the organs built by Casavant Frères and originally installed in Newfoundland is now located in Ontario and is in excellent condition.
Pipe organs of Labrador
We believe that there were at least five pipe organs installed in Labrador, the mainland part of the province. Four of these were smaller instruments and were installed in communities along the coastal shore, the first having arrived in 1824. The only organ among these four still in existence today is located in the Moravian Church, Hopedale: a one-manual with four stops, built in Saxony, Germany. We continue to search for information on the other three pipe organs we believe were located along the coastal shore of Labrador. It is highly likely that these too came from Saxony, Germany.
The fifth pipe organ located in Labrador is a Casavant, a unit organ of one manual, nine stops, three ranks. It was relocated in 1981 to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Basilica, Labrador City. The organ is in good condition, is played on a regular basis, and is actively maintained.
Inventory of Newfoundland
and Labrador pipe organs
The table below, a chronological listing of the instruments of the past and present installed in Newfoundland and Labrador, is current as of January 2013. Each instrument is identified by opus number, year of installation, city or town, location, builder, number of manuals, stops, and ranks, type of action, and present condition. Abbreviations were used to describe the action of the instruments: “M” Mechanical (Tracker), “P” Pneumatic, “MP” Mechanical-Pneumatic, “EP” Electro-Pneumatic, “DE” Direct Electric (all unit organs), and “ES” Electric Slider. In the Opus and Year columns, “N/A” indicates data was not available at the time of publication.
We would greatly appreciate being made aware of any errors or omissions and would welcome readers’ corrections and comments. Any information that can be added to these files or data to help fill in the table would certainly be welcomed. All information on the organs of Newfoundland and Labrador has been submitted from the files of Lester Goulding.
Some historical facts of interest
The 1853 Thomas J. Robson organ, installed in St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Basilica, St. John’s, had three manuals and 46 stops: 16 on the Great, 11 on the Choir, 13 on the Swell, and six for the pedals, plus four couplers;1 “[…] it was handsomely equipped with mixtures on all three manuals, and fell short of the full present-day gospel by failing to have a 4ft. choral bass on the pedals.”2 We have found no trace of this pipe organ.
Today, St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Basilica houses two Casavant organs, both installed in 1955. Opus 2269 is a four-manual, 51-stop instrument located in the gallery, and opus 2270 a two-manual, 15-stop instrument located in the chancel.
A very rare and historic instrument is to be found in the Masonic Temple, St. John’s. Built in 1883 (opus number unknown) by August Gern, who previously worked as a foreman in the late 19th century for the renowned French organbuilder Cavaillé-Coll, the instrument is fitted with two manuals, 10 stops, and mechanical/pneumatic action. It has glass-paneled doors, all part of the console, which are set into the beautiful case. This pipe organ was originally built for the home of John B. Ayre (1850–1915), a merchant, political figure, organist, and director of the music section of the now defunct Ayre and Sons department store.
The importance of this instrument is that it is the only Gern pipe organ in Canada and in fact the only one in North America. Our understanding is that only a very few August Gern pipe organs remain intact in England where the builder lived. Unfortunately this pipe organ is in poor condition and in need of a total restoration. We firmly believe that this pipe organ should be restored to the full working condition of its glory days and sit in its rightful place as part of the glorious history of Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Bevington & Sons organ of 1884, a one-manual, nine-stop instrument with mechanical action, was built for Alexander Street Methodist Church. It was moved in 1911 to Trinity United Church, Winterton. This instrument is in good condition today.
The British organ builders, Forster & Andrews (1843–1956), of Hull, England, built a total of eight instruments that were exported to Newfoundland. Seven of these were smaller instruments of similar design (one manual, six stops), the other one being a larger organ of three manuals, 38 stops. The last of the smaller instruments was built in 1928 for Botwood United Church, Botwood. In 1990, the organ was relocated to the Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, St. John’s. The organ is in poor condition and is in need of a total restoration. It should be pointed out that Forster & Andrews were exporting their instruments to Newfoundland while it was still a British colony and did not export any of their instruments to Canada.3
Casavant opus 2586, built in 1960 for All Saints’ Anglican Church, Foxtrap, is a two-manual, 20-stop, three-rank direct electric action instrument. It was moved in 1999 to St. Leonard’s Roman Catholic Church in Manotick, Ontario. This pipe organ is in excellent condition.4
The only two pipe organs that we know to have been imported from the United States are Estey opus 1701 (1919), located in Central United Church, Bay Roberts (two manuals, seven stops) and Möller opus 7751 (1948), located in St. Anthony United Church, St. Anthony (two manuals, 17 stops, three ranks). Both are still in good playing condition.
Of the eleven pipe organs built in Canada and exported before 1949, nine were by Casavant, one by Woodstock, and one by Lye. Of these instruments, eight are still playable and rate from good to excellent, two were destroyed, and one lost its console (destroyed), although the case remains in the church.
Of the three instruments installed by unknown builders, one has been destroyed and two are still in use, one rated poor and one good.
Casavant opus 1386, located in Gower Street United Church, St. John’s, was installed in 1930: three manuals, 29 stops. This instrument was rebuilt and enlarged in 2007 to 36 stops.
It is amazing that, even after 160 years (1853–2013), fourteen of the 36 instruments manufactured in England remain in playable condition, their status ranging from poor to good, and that the two that are silent remain intact in their original location. We would very much like to see all of these remaining instruments that came from Britain and are still in playable condition be classified as heritage instruments, and rebuilt to their original condition before this very important part of Canadian history is lost forever.
Gower Street United Church,
St. John’s, Newfoundland
In the photograph, we see the Peter Conacher organ built in 1896 for Gower Street United Church, St. John’s, Newfoundland. In 1930, the organ was moved to the Memorial United Church, Grand Falls, Newfoundland. This photo was taken in 1953, prior to the organ being dismantled. The casework shown here now houses Casavant opus 2182. The towers and rosettes are hand-carved. Beautiful!
The United Church of Canada came into existence in 1925, bringing together the Congregational, Methodist, and some of the Presbyterian churches of Canada.
The authors wish to express their most sincere thanks and appreciation to the following: Carl Goulding, who spent countless hours correcting the chronological listing for this article; Kathy Roberts, who spent hours making changes and corrections in order for this article to be published; Paul Cheatley, who designed the database used in this article and provided helpful input to this article.
1. E. J. Hopkins and E. F. Rimbault, The Organ: Its History and Construction (London: Robert Cocks & Co., 1877), pp. 453–454.
2. C. I. G. Stobie, “The Organ in St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, St. John’s, Newfoundland,” The Organ, 52, 1972, p. 58.
3. Laurence Elvin, Forster and Andrews: Organ Builders, 1843–1956 (Lincoln: Laurence Elvin, 1968), p. 77.
4. “Pipe Organ Database,” Organ Historical Society, 15 February 2013, database.organsociety.org.