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St. James church’s new organ to start coming to life as pipe sound testing begins

by Ashley Mackin-Solomon, The La Jolla Light


This is a busy month at La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in its effort to build a new pipe organ — one of many busy months ahead.

Crews have been onsite since June unloading almost all of the organ’s 4,551 pipes — the smallest is the size of a pinkie, the largest is 32 feet long — and installing them in St. James.


This month, the facade pipes facing the congregation hall were mounted, encased in decorative wood holdings. Some are real pipes used to make music and some are decorative to round out the display.


Starting Tuesday, Sept. 20, builders will be on hand to test each pipe, marking the first time the organ will be heard in its new home.


“We will start to hear the organ come to life,” church music director Alex Benestelli said with a smile. “We can’t wait to hear it.”


The builders will use a process called tonal finishing to check and perfect the sound each pipe makes, one by one, some requiring a small precision knife for refinement.


“They have their work cut out for them,” Benestelli said.

Given that November and December is the “busy season” for the church, workers will not return until just after Christmas to deliver and install the organ console and the last pipes. The organ’s dedication is expected in the spring.


Thus far, parishioners have raised $3.3 million of the $3.5 million needed to complete the project. Church leadership hopes the remainder will be raised by the end of this year.

The church’s first organ, built in 1930 with limited funds because of the Depression, lasted until 1970. The next one was built in 1975 but was flawed and often needed expensive repairs, Benestelli said.


In 2017, a committee was formed to decide whether to repair the organ again or replace it. A consultant was hired and organ makers were invited to submit proposals. Rather than repair the organ, church leaders opted for a replacement.


“Given we have such a strong musical tradition, the church community wanted a top-class organ,” said the Rev. Mark Hargreaves, St. James’ head pastor. “The organ leads our worship, and that is the most important thing we do as a church community. ... The worship needs to be beautiful and well-done. It is our way to give thanks for what God has done.”


Manuel Rosales, known for the organ he designed for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, designed the St. James organ, and Parsons Pipe Organ Builders of western New York will complete the project.

“I am thrilled to see the new organ’s progress at St. James by-the-Sea,” Rosales said. “This huge undertaking is made possible by the skilled work of so many people, from artists to craftsmen, pipe makers and engineers. At Rosales Organ Builders [based in Los Angeles], we believe attention to every detail is what makes an organ an exceptional piece of art, and I can’t wait to bring that to life in La Jolla.”


Benestelli agreed. “One of the things I love is that all the parts that are never going to be seen by anyone … except an organ tuner or technician were still designed with beautiful poplar and maple wood, engraving and even decorative seashells, which is pretty cool,” he said. “A lot of care has gone into this.”


This article appears in the September 16, 2022 online edition of The La Jolla Light.

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