Fire destroys Yukon's 'treasured,' and only, church pipe organ

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Fire destroys Yukon's 'treasured,' and only, church pipe organ

It arrived in Whitehorse 37 years ago, having been bought in Pennsylvania, disassembled into hundreds of pieces, carefully packed into a moving van, and driven about 6,000 kilometres (through two snow storms).

It was Yukon's only pneumatic pipe organ, and on Wednesday it was silenced by fire.

"I haven't been able to return all the phone calls," said Jean Dacko, vice chair of the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church council. "It's been a really priceless feature of our church, that everyone's really treasured."

It's not known yet how the fire started. Dacko says someone was inside cleaning the church on Wednesday afternoon when they discovered it, near the instrument. The fire department arrived quick enough to contain most of the damage and no one was hurt.

The organ, though, is likely ruined beyond repair. The pipes weren't damaged, but the console is destroyed and it's uncertain whether a new one could be properly connected to the surviving hardware.

"It was beautiful, it had so much sound," Dacko said. 

"It just penetrated the walls — it just really made you feel the spirit and love of God's presence."

Bought for a dollar

The hand-crafted pneumatic organ was built in 1926 by George Kilgen and Son, a prominent manufacturer based in St. Louis, Mo. 

In 1979, the Whitehorse Church saw an ad in "The Lutheran" magazine for the organ, which was being sold by a church in Altoona, Pa. Trinity ended up buying it for just a dollar.

"They had a couple of good-sized bids on it, but they liked the idea of it coming North. So they said, yeah, we can have it for a dollar," recalled Trinity worshipper Stan Marinoske, who was involved in the purchase and transport of the organ. 

When the massive instrument arrived in Yukon — with 843 individual pipes, some four metres long — the church had to build an extension to accommodate it.

The first major concert and dedication of the organ happened in May, 1981, when a renowned American composer, Paul Manz, gave a performance of music by Bach and Handel.

"It was just incredible, the sound that came from it, the music that came from it," Dacko recalled. "We've always been pretty proud of our organ."

Building repairs, cleanup could take months

Dacko says the church will look into the cost of replacing the instrument, but she's not sure that's possible.

In the short term, however, the congregation needs to find a new place of worship while the fire damage is cleaned up and repaired.

"It doesn't look like much damage, you just think it's an organ, but it goes much deeper than the organ. So they estimated a couple months before we could use the church," she said.

Dacko says the priority is to re-open the daycare that rents space in the basement of the church. It suffered minimal damage, so Dacko hopes it can open as early as next week.

Marinoske said it's hard to put into words what it's meant to lose the historic organ.

"We're all still kind of in shock," he said. "The one great blessing about it all is, it could have been much worse. It could have been the whole building."