Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

During Salem Covenant Church’s 125th Anniversary, it was deemed appropriate to highlight Salem’s musical life by bringing forth the lovely reed organ from the archives into the sanctuary to stand side by side with the Holtkamp organ, which was undergoing maintenance. Our organist, Cindy Reents made the comment that both instruments have played an important role in the worship life of this congregation.

In a recent Sunday worship we heard sounds that our forebears heard over 100 years ago in the Mission House on 17th and Jefferson Streets—a soft gentle sound, and I would add, a sweet sound with Cindy playing the songs of Nils Frykman. I confess I was moved to tears by the past meeting the present, still possessing the power to bless. It is important to know that from the beginning, while the string band may have played the informal folk and Gospel songs on Sunday evenings, the organ was the instrument of choice for the Sunday morning gudstjänst (divine service), both for playing and singing the Lutheran chorales and other stately hymns from English hymnody. I wondered how a congregation of “the few and poor” could make the purchase of an organ a priority unless it was that these immigrants were a bit homesick for a certain kind of beauty in their worship.

They undoubtedly remembered the organs they heard in their local parishes of the Church of Sweden from which they had come.

But which organ should they get? When the congregation decided to purchase a new reed organ, four organs were brought into the Mission House for a trial run on Sunday morning June 22, 1896 – like candidates running for public office. After hearing the four organs, one Packard organ was elected. Thus began a search for organists. During interims without an organist, Olaf Holmer, a member of the mission house was invited to take charge. The board called organists from Galesburg, Illinois, and later an organist from Cleveland, Ohio. The salary for the latter was raised to fifteen dollars a month.

When the mission house was abandoned for the new Church on 18½ Central Avenue, we have no documentation as to whom the organ was sold. But because it appeared in recent years in the home of Dr. Paul and Phyllis Holmer, one can assume it must have been purchased by Olaf Holmer or a family member of the mission house. It was refurbished beginning with the organ case and on the inside given new leathers for the stops and then electrified by Keith and Kermit Olson at the request of the Holmers. In making their final move, Paul and Phyllis offered the organ to the archives of the Salem church, which was gratefully accepted. Remembering its appearance in the sanctuary, of this reed organ standing beside the huge Holtcamp organ, my wife Jane said about the smaller instrument that it stood proud, holding its own with integrity and beauty beside the Holtkamp. I think all who were present that Sunday morning would agree.

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

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