By Jessica Easthope
The organ is the soundtrack to Connor Whalen’s life. He taught himself how to play the organ by ear when he was 9-years-old and played his first full mass at 12.
“I’ve watched videos and read some books and practiced, it’s not easy, ya know,” he said.
He started playing on Immaculate Heart of Mary Church’s old organ, and now, as the church’s organist and music director, he plays a brand new one that’s just his.
“It brought me much closer to God and I’m really happy that I’m able to play my part and help with the liturgy because having a pipe organ,” Connor said.
Immaculate Heart of Mary spent $350,000 on an Opus 765 Kilgen organ. Pastor, Father Ilyas Gill said it was worth every penny.
“Music is a major part of our liturgy and without music the mass becomes very dry and through music our liturgy becomes very alive and people rejoice over this,” said Fr. Gill.
But not many churches are willing or have that kind of money to spend. One of the many factors causing a nationwide organist shortage.
“It is a challenge especially for smaller parishes that are struggling just to keep the doors open to fund a professional musician to help lead the services,” said J.W. Arnold, the marketing and communications specialist for the American Guild of Organists.
The American Guild of Organists has seen its membership fluctuate over the years.
Right now there are 13,000 members. The Brooklyn chapter has 48 members – one decade ago there were 58.
“It’s something that’s alive and vibrant and there’s still a purpose for it and our mission is to educate and support our members but also educate our pastors, why should you spend money on a salary for an organist,” said Gary Di Franco, dean of the Brooklyn chapter.
But finances isn’t the only reason for dwindling numbers. The pandemic drove some organists away and a full return to parish life hasn’t yet happened. And Guild officials say as more parishes make a move toward more contemporary services, the organ is being played off.
But not for Connor. He says if anything will bring people back to mass, it’s his organ’s 1,429 pipes.
“It creates such a beautiful rich sound to fill the space of the church, as you walk into that church it brings people closer to God and it really uplifts people and it’s that kind of sound that makes people want to come back,” he said.
Connor said the solution to the shortage is more access and education.
“There’s not a lot of education around here, we need to have more training, include more programs especially for people who are very young,” he said.
Immaculate Heart of Mary’s organ setup is worth $1M but Fr. Gill says having a gifted organist, willing to pay and evangelize with music is priceless.