So strong was 14-year-old John Bartell’s desire to play the church organ, he would pray before the Blessed Sacrament for that to happen.
“I always prayed that if I had the chance, I would play until the day I dropped,” he recalled.
Many years later, it appears that Bartell’s prayers are being answered: He recently played the organ for his 50th consecutive Christmas at St. Ann’s Church in Hornell. And Bartell’s music is sounding better than ever — thanks, inadvertently, to a church fire that occurred last April 22.
Although St. Ann’s venerable pipe organ was spared physical damage, it incurred a great detail of filth from the blaze, prompting a long-overdue cleaning. “It was just completely filled with greasy soot, which meant every pipe had to be cleaned,” Bartell explained. He said the 126-year-old organ had probably never received a thorough cleaning — a situation not helped by St. Ann’s proximity to the local railroad industry. “Imagine the soot from that,” he remarked.
Bartell tackled the immense chore of dismantling and cleaning the organ and its pipes, aided by what he described as the “brilliant help” of parishioner Ed Karns, 21. Karns, an organ enthusiast who has been guided by Bartell, occasionally plays at St. Ann’s events.
Working every day over a three-week period, Bartell and Karns removed each of the organ’s pipes — well over 700 in all — and transported them to Bartell’s back yard.
“To clean the metal pipes, John bought a small children’s swimming pool where we filled it up with water and Spic and Span soap. The wooden pipes were cleaned by using Murphy’s Oil Soap,” Karns noted.
After the pipes were cleaned, Bartell and Karns also labored hard to get the organ tuned properly. Their volunteer work was completed the day before St. Ann’s Church reopened in early July.
“I believe the organ was in the best tune I had ever heard it,” Karns said.
“You know what it’s like to talk with marbles in your mouth? The organ ‘talks’ a lot clearer, brighter and more cheerful,” Bartell said.
Bartell and Karns described the project as a fun experience. For instance, during the dismantling, they found a Buffalo newspaper from 1878 — the year that Bartell believes the organ was constructed by Garret House, a noted organ builder from that city.
Bartell’s relationship with the St. Ann’s organ provides an interesting history itself. It began when he was an eighth-grader at St. Ann’s School, receiving organ tutelage from Sister Mary Raymond Joseph, RSM, who remains active today as the parish visitor at St. Mary’s Parish in Elmira and as a substitute organist at several Elmira churches. (She was pictured in the Courier’s Sept. 25-26, 2004, Southern Tier edition.)
Bartell said he first inquired about playing the organ on Christmas because, in the mid-1950s, music was provided for St. Ann’s midnight Mass but not for daytime Christmas liturgies. He was granted permission to fill that void and he hasn’t stopped since, even playing on Christmas while home on semester break from the University of Georgia.
There are currently two Christmas Masses at St. Ann’s; Bartell played at the midnight liturgy this past Dec. 24 and the 10 a.m. liturgy this past Dec. 25. Yet in previous years, he would play at as many as six Christmas Masses in a single day. “I’m not sure the family’s been always pleased that Santa Claus has come at weird hours,” he remarked.
Bartell, who has been the paid part-time organist at St. Ann’s since 1968, also directs the parish choir. In addition, he devotes much of his time and talent to maintaining the church’s sound and heating systems. He also helps out, when needed, with organ duty at other churches in the newly formed Our Lady of the Valley Parish, of which St. Ann’s is a part.
He is a longtime professor at Alfred State College, where he currently serves as chair of the department of agriculture and horticulture. Though Bartell will retire from Alfred State this coming June, he has no such plans for St. Ann’s. After all, how else could he fulfill his childhood hope of playing the organ for as long as possible?
“It’s never become boring over the years. I do it with enthusiasm,” he stated.
That’s good news for the people of St. Ann’s.
“I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have him around,” Karns said. “He loves to play for Christmas and all other times. I’ve never heard him complain about having to play. Playing the organ is his passion, and he will continue to play for the rest of his life.”