Cover feature

March 5, 2015

From the organbuilder

In 1976, a fire at the historic Christ Anglican Church in London, Ontario, caused severe damage to the interior of the nave as well as considerable damage to the organ. The organ was built in 1907 by the Warren Organ Company—a well-known builder at the time—in Woodstock, Ontario. While the instrument contained lovely romantic sounds of well-balanced organ voices, it became clear after consultation with organ companies and consultants that the damage to the historic instrument was beyond restoration at a reasonable and justifiable cost.

Designed in 1862 in Gothic Revival architecture by London City designer William Robinson, Christ Church—seating about 200—became the second oldest Anglican church in London after St. Paul’s Cathedral. Located in the city core area between the railway and the Thames River, the church was a center of worship and activities for both the working community and academia alike, and became known for its high standard of Anglican liturgy and music. In 1878 prominent citizens of London came together at Christ Church, and the result of this meeting was the foundation of the University of Western Ontario. 

Following extensive repairs to the fire-damaged nave, the acquisition of a new organ became the next project. This involved discussions with a few organ companies, the church vestry, organists, and musicians of related disciplines. An invaluable contribution was the advice given by the late organist and composer Dr. George Black, who was Professor of Music, Anglican Liturgy, and Romance Languages at Huron College. 

The consensus was that a new organ should be placed in the west-end gallery of the nave and not at the front in the chancel where the first organ was located. Part of this decision was based on the excellent acoustic properties of the nave, into which sounds could flow freely from the balcony location. At Christ Church the measured sound decay period across a broad spectrum of frequencies was an ideal 2.5 seconds. We would like to believe that architect William Robinson must have had in mind such acoustics where public speaking, congregational singing, and other musical sounds projected easily into every corner of the nave. And thus, in the design of a new organ, such acoustic properties demanded special consideration in the development of the organ pipes, their materials, and scales for their intended sounds.

I had the privilege of collaborating with Dr. Black in the development of a new organ that would not only provide all tonal resources for liturgical worship but also offer opportunities for other musical events, such as recitals and performances with other musicians.

But with all this enthusiasm there was a problem. While the ideas were all good, fire insurance coverage did not provide nearly enough money to build the envisioned instrument. London, a city of 300,000, still had the “small-town” community atmosphere where friends of Christ Church—musicians from other churches or other music disciplines—came together. The late attorney, organist, and conductor Gordon D. Jeffery offered, free of charge, his privately owned small concert hall—Aeolian Town Hall—as a venue for concerts and recitals as fundraisers toward the cost of a new organ for Christ Church. His Aeolian Town Hall also housed a three-manual tracker organ of thirty-four stops (my Opus 47) and hence was an ideal location for both organ recitals and chamber music. All musicians donated their talents to the Christ Church organ fund. There are too many artists to name and thank at this point. The result was that Christ Church would contract me as builder of the new organ in January 1976. It would have fourteen stops, mechanical key and stop action, two manuals and pedal, and freestanding casework for projection. 

The organ dedication, presided over by Bishop of Huron, T. D. B. Ragg, took place on February 6, 1977.

Similar to other cities and towns, over recent years urban changes affected inner-city activities, which resulted in diminishing attendance of downtown churches. Christ Church was no exception to such changes, and eventually, after years of efforts to provide local needs, had to close its doors. The organ, along with other contents, was offered for sale. 

Of the parties interested in purchasing the organ, one was particularly suitable in terms of space, liturgical and musical use, and especially for its acoustic environment. It was St. Mark’s Anglican Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, which agreed to accept and accommodate the organ.

I, along with colleagues Tom Churchill, Larry Hunt, and Chris McKaskell, undertook the relocation of the instrument from Christ Church in London to St. Mark’s, where it has an ideal and fortunate location. I needed to make only minor tonal changes in its new home.

Of interest, it was organbuilder Tom Churchill who joined me when this organ, Opus 82, was built in 1976, and it is again organbuilder Tom Churchill who supervised its move to the new and most suitable location.

—Gabriel Kney


From the rector

Last February, through a conversation with a good friend who was honorary assistant in an Anglican church in London, I became aware of the possible closure of that church. My friend, the Reverend Dr. Donald Irvine, former dean of Huron College where I studied theology, informed me that, sadly, the Christ Church congregation would likely be closing its doors very soon. And so began my involvement, as rector of St. Mark’s, in a six-month process that would see the Gabriel Kney pipe organ (Opus 82) moved from London, Ontario, into our historic church in Niagara-on-the-Lake. 

When I was at seminary from 1972–1975, one of my professors, Dr. George Black, was organist at Christ Church, and it was at that time I first met the organ builder, Gabriel Kney, whose shop was in London. Both Gabriel and George were members of Christ Church. I often listen to a CD recorded in 1995 featuring George playing that very organ. In the liner notes for that CD there is a phrase that speaks of this marvelous combination of organist and organ builder: “the circumstances of having both a George Black and a Gabriel Kney in one small church is perhaps a testament to the mysterious working of Spirit.” Knowing both Gabriel and the late George Black over the years I can only say “Amen” to that!

Throughout my ministry, over the years our paths would cross many times. In 1989 Gabriel built a pipe organ for my former parish, St. John’s, Stirling, and it was George Black who played the inaugural recital on that instrument, a concert recorded by CBC Radio. In 2005 St. Mark’s became the recipient of another Gabriel Kney organ, from the Riese family who resided near Ottawa. This smaller organ now sits in the transept of the church. 

There are two important things to know about St. Mark’s Church, the place that was to become the second home to Opus 82. The congregation here is one whose history and heritage seem to seep from the walls.

In 1790 two prominent citizens of Niagara-on-the-Lake, then known as Newark, wrote to the Bishop of Nova Scotia asking that “an Anglican clergyman be sent to Niagara.” This request was passed on to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in England, and in 1791 Rev. Robert Addison was chosen and sent as a missionary to become the first rector. Addison, a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge, brought with him his library of over twelve hundred books, the oldest of which was published in 1548. The Addison Library, as it is known today, is the oldest library in the Province of Ontario. Although the exact date of the construction of the church is uncertain, we believe it was erected within the first decade. In 1792 Niagara became the first capital of what would eventually become the Province of Ontario, and Robert Addison became Chaplain to the Legislature. Within a generation the community and St. Mark’s Church found themselves in the middle of a war, a conflict we know as the War of 1812. St. Mark’s Church was first used by British and Canadian soldiers as a field hospital, then later held by American soldiers when in 1813 Fort George and the town were captured by American forces. The church is one of the very few buildings to survive the War of 1812. One of our former parishioners, General Isaac Brock, commander of the British and Canadian forces, was a member of St. Mark’s, and Robert Addison would conduct his funeral in October of 1812 as a result of Brock’s death at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Although history and heritage are significant ingredients in our faith community, it is also important to note that St. Mark’s is a living and dynamic faith community. One of the ways we practice our faith today is through exercising God’s gift of music.

Under the very capable leadership of our organist and choir director, Michael Tansley, the Sunday morning liturgy is filled with the wonderful sounds of voice and instrument. Under Michael’s guidance our choir leads a congregation that loves to sing, and the Sunday morning faith experience is enriched by the joy that the ministry of music brings to worship. But our music experience is not limited to the Sunday liturgy. 

St. Mark’s was a key participant in the founding in 1999 of an annual music festival, Music Niagara. Atis Bankas, resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, violinist in the Toronto Symphony, and a renowned and experienced teacher of many young violinists, is the artistic director of this festival. Under his auspices the very best musicians from all over the world are invited to Niagara each summer and most of those concerts take place here in this church. The combination of our rich history, a beautiful church, and the congregation’s passion for the arts, especially music, meant the acquisition of an instrument such as this pipe organ seemed to be a move in the right direction. There are indications already that this partnership between Music Niagara and St. Mark’s new pipe organ is beginning to bear fruit. On July 21, as part of the festival’s summer concerts, two organists from the Netherlands—Susanna Veerman and Wim Does—will play an organ recital here at St. Mark’s as part of their Canadian tour.

While there are many who love music in our parish, there was one parishioner, and very good friend, who simply adored the sound of the pipe organ. Fred Dixon was that man. On many occasions Fred and his wife, Marti, would tell me about their travels to Holland and their many excursions to churches there to hear many large pipe organs. When I spoke to him about this pipe organ in London he simply said, “Let’s get it for St. Mark’s!” He became a very gracious and generous benefactor without whom we simply would not have the organ. His generosity and vision were critical to the process of securing the instrument. With Fred’s help we also received a grant from the Foster Hewitt Foundation enabling us to cover the cost of transporting the organ from London to St. Mark’s, Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Gabriel Kney and Tom Churchill would oversee the process of dismantling and delivering the organ from Christ Church to our congregation, which they accomplished in mid-August. Tom is a lifelong friend, both of us having sung in a choir over fifty years ago in another Christ Church, a congregation where my father was rector.

During the time the organ was being reassembled at St. Mark’s, I spent many happy hours watching the two men at work, breakfasting with them at a local restaurant, the Red Rooster, and sharing a few drinks at the end of the day on the rectory veranda. It was good to renew old friendships. Gabriel Kney and his wife, Mary Lou Nowicki, who is herself a fine organist and retired professor of organ at Central Michigan University and the University of Kansas, spent a week seeing to the voicing and tuning of the instrument. At the end of that session we were all amazed to discover how wonderful the instrument sounded in our acoustic space although it had been designed for another church.

It was fitting that native son Andrew Henderson, organist at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, not only performed the inaugural recital on this instrument but stayed over to play the next day for the Advent Festival of Lessons and Carols. As we know, Advent marks the beginning of the Christian year and speaks of renewal and new beginnings. This Gabriel Kney pipe organ has been moved to another church from another diocese, the Diocese of Huron, and given a new beginning here at historic St. Mark’s. Those who call this faith community home could not be happier.

—Rev. Canon Dr. Robert S. G. Wright

Rector, St. Mark’s Anglican Church

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada


Photo credit: Cosmo Condina Photography (


Websites of interest

St. Mark’s:

Music Niagara: