In 1967 I heard that there was an interesting old organ in St. Peter Catholic Church in Bordelonville, Louisiana. I went to see the organ and found a small completely encased instrument in a filagree case with a handsome inlaid nameboard indicating that it was built by Louis Debierre, Nantes. The organ was not playable due to a bad bellows, but a peek inside revealed some very interesting wood pipes with valves and other interesting constructions.
Rachelen Lien and other members of the New Orleans chapter of the Organ Historical Society also visited the organ, and it was placed on the Extant Organs List of the OHS. We were all interested in the fate of the organ, and kept in touch over the years with Monsignor Timmermans, the pastor of the church. Eventually, we learned that Fr. Timmermans had retired and had stored the organ at his residence in Mansura, Louisiana.
Over the years I visited the organ again several times and purchased it in 2012. Sadly the years of storage had taken its toll in damage to the instrument, but I thought it still very restorable. It was obviously to Fr. Timmermans’s credit that the organ survived at all. Here is Fr. Timmermans’s interesting letter about the history of the instrument:
Dear Mrs. Lien:
Sorry for the delay of my answer to your request for info on the Debierre organ. I’ve been trying to get some details on its history but with little success so far. The old organ was in the choir loft of St. Peter Catholic Church in Bordelonville, Louisiana. The pastor was Monsignor Isidore Dekeulaer, who was from Belgium. When I was visting with him (around 1960) he showed it to me and I was very impressed. . . . He retired in 1969 and went back to his native country to take care of his older and blind brother (also a priest). He died unexpectedly in 1971.
To my great surprise, he left this organ to me in his last will. One of his successors [Fr. James Roy] called me around 1978 to get some people to move the organ out of the choir loft, because they were restoring the church and it was just in the way. If I would not pick it up in three days, he would throw it down from the loft (!).
Of course, I wanted to store it in my workshop for preservation and got some strong men to move it to my workshop.
I’m still trying to get more info from some old parishoners. I found in the history of that church that there were six previous pastors from France between 1900 and 1923. I have a strong feeling that one of them, Fr. Henry Jacquemin, who was an excellent musician and organist, could have been the one who brought this instrument from France to Bordelonville.
I’m very happy that I’ve been helpful in keeping this historic organ from destruction and that it is in the good hands of Roy Redman. I’m still trying to get more information . . . and will keep you updated.
God bless you and your wonderful work.
Monsignor John Timmermans
Pastor Emeritus, Sacred Heart, Moreauville, LA
After moving the organ to my workshop in Fort Worth, Texas, I set about finding information about the builder, his work, and this organ in particular. I learned that Louis Debierre (1842–1920) worked near Nantes, France, and had a factory with 50 workers. He is known to have built over 500 organs and to have developed very efficient ways of working to produce organs of very high quality. He was quite an innovator and held many patents in organ construction, including the so-called polyphonic pipe, allowing one pipe to play several pitches.
Although he built many large organs, his principal output was small organs to be used in a chapel or as a secondary choir organ in a large church. To many, he is largely and unfortunately unknown because of being obscured by his colleagues, including Artistide Cavaillé-Coll. Little is written about him, except a small book by Pierre Legal, entirely in French.
The research and restoration of the small instruments by Debierre has, however, been taken up by Mark Richli, an organist in Zurich. I found his extensive article on the internet, and he found my early postings asking for information on the builder and the organs. He has now supplied us with an amazing amount of information. His first email to me of March 24, 2014, informed me that we had organ number 53, a number that was stamped near the knee swell, and we had not found. He further sent me a photocopy of the factory record book that shows the organ was sent to Avoyelles (parish name), Louisiana, on October 1, 1886. The bench and pumping handle were missing from the organ, and Mark has supplied us with photographs and detailed measured drawings so that these could be reproduced.
This even included the turned trestle piece that connects the legs of the bench together with measured detail on the legs themselves. See the several photographs.
Now let us turn to the organ itself, its specifications, and its “secrets.”
Bass C1–b24 Treble c25–g56
Quintaton 16′ (1–12 51⁄3′) Quintaton 16′
Bourdon 8′ Bourdon 8′
Flute 4′ Flute 4′
Transposing keyboard—11 semitones
Bellows with foot-operated feeders
Decorative fretwork case
Antique ivory keys
Added electric blower
Mechanical key and stop action
60″ X 65″ X 65″ tall
On casters for easy moving
First of all, the organ is an absolute marvel of engineering for compactness without overcrowding the pipes. With each rank, C1 to b24 are arranged as a W shape, and c25 to g56 arranged as an A shape. This obviously allows the pipes to nestle together in the most compact way without overcrowding.
This is all made possible by one large rollerboard that sits immediately behind the knee panel. It also has double roller arms to allow the pushing motion of the keys to become a pulling motion for the trackers going down to the windchest. Inside the chest the pallets are opened in the center by a short backfall. This obviously allows maximum wind to be supplied by the small and very narrow pallets. The stop action goes down through the very middle of the windchest to rollers below the chest, which move the sliders directly.
The 16′ Quintaton begins as a very effective 51⁄3′ with wood pipes speaking three pitches by means of valves. We wondered how this could be, since normally opening a hole in a pipe simply produces a bad sound. Each valve is removable for service and adjustment, and we found a mitred tube inside each one! So, it effectively becomes a chimney flute when the valve is opened, and the slight change of timbre is not noticed at these piches. The Quintaton becomes metal by means of very nice tin pipes at c25. See the picture comparing the Quintaton to the Bourdon pipe of the same pitch. Notice the difference in diameter and the height of the mouth cut-up.
The Bourdon 8′ also begins with pipes speaking three pitches. It changes to capped tin at c25, and then to tin harmonic flutes at c36. It really opens up toward the top of the compass to the extent that one can easily accompany a solo on the one stop.
The 8′ Diapason is of large-scale tin pipes and is rather powerful. All the metal pipes are scroll tuned and are held in place by sky racks and turning latches.
The 8′ Violoncelle is of smaller-scale tin pipes, and as edgy as expected, but not so much as modern strings tend to be.
The 4′ Flute has open wood bass pipes and changes to tin at c25. These pipes have a rather bright tonality such as we would expect from a 4′ Principal.
Overall there is much to learn and appreciate from this organ. It certainly is unlike organs built on this continent, but extremely suited to its intended use. We owe a great gratitude to those who have assisted in its restoration and preservation.