Close view of the Rieger/Pasi organ with Dennis Northway sitting on the bench

An Organ Odyssey

There are few organists who have the experience and political skills needed to join a church staff, develop the music program, and convince the church to add a new organ into the mix of a planned capital campaign and building renovation. Yet that is exactly what Dennis Northway did at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Gig Harbor. On Monday, November 15, 2021, Tacoma AGO members gathered entered the sanctuary through the new, brightly lit narthex to hear the story of the new Rieger/Pasi organ.

The building renovation was dramatic. Gone is the wall to wall carpet, with new, glistening hardwood floors in its place. The beautiful stained glass window at the liturgical West end is visible again, as the Moller Artiste that had blocked it is now gone.

Dennis began his campaign for a new organ with an educational event–teaching the capital campaign committee about the role of congregational singing in the life of the church. They hired David Dahl as a consultant, and the project took off. The capital campaign committee agreed that the Moller Artiste had to go.

The church initially planned to buy Fritts opus 16, currently on lease to a church in New York City, but discovered that it was going to cost an additional $450,000 to reinforce the floor over the heating system in order to accommodate the Fritts organ at the liturgical East end. The extra cost was not financially feasible. David Dahl remembered that there was a Rieger organ available, originally purchased for a school in New York. Martin Pasi, formerly a Rieger employee, and now an organ builder in Tacoma, agreed to install the organ on a side wall at the other end of the church. It also required floor reinforcement and seismic protection, but at a much lower cost than the original plan.

The organ is only partially installed at this time, but Dennis used BWV 549, Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C Minor, as the first musical example, filling the room with a strong principal sound. Florence Price’s In Quiet Mood, showcased the flutes and principals with its lush harmony. Dennis used a prelude by Jacques Boyvin to demonstrate an 8,4, and 2 combination, and Bach trio sonata BWV 529 (slow movement) to show a balanced flute combination.

A long view of the nave, showing the organ placement against a side wall in the back
Nave of Saint John’s Episcopal Church, Gig Harbor, WA

As part of the installation, several stops will be removed, and several others added by organ builder Martin Pasi. Dennis provided a handout entitled “Pipe Organ History” to document the disposition of the former Moller organ and the plans to complete the present organ, including a new Great trumpet and a new Pedal fagott. That document is attached at the end of this article.

Rector Eric Stelle was a designer before he was a priest, and is very pleased with both the architectural changes and the addition of the organ. A member said to him that the church still looks like St. John’s, but it also now looks good. Stelle was also very complimentary of Dennis Northway, calling him a gentle presence who saw this change as a necessary part of a larger mission.

Following the demonstration, members were treated to a reception served by church members.

Table of refreshments and fresh flowers
Refreshments served at a reception following the AGO program

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