March 2016 TAO Cover Feature Article

St. Monica Catholic Church, Dallas, TX
Nichols & Simpson Inc., Little Rock, AR

By Jeremy Wirths

Panoramic view of St. Monica's round architecture design.

Panoramic view of St. Monica’s round architecture design.

St. Monica Catholic Church in Dallas, Texas, founded in 1954, is a large parish of around 14,000 parishioners, with an average of 4,000 individuals attending seven weekend Masses, and a proud heritage of education: St. Monica School maintains an enrollment of more than 850 students in grades K–8.

The parish has ten choirs and ensembles that provide leadership for the various Masses in both English and Spanish. The church building and organ are used for several school choral liturgies each week, along with many special performances, including organ recitals, and numerous musical presentations by outside ensembles.

In 2012, the parish began a major renovation of the church building, which had not been updated since its construction in 1965. The church’s dry acoustics had, for decades, been an impediment to music making. The previous organ, a 1968 three-manual Wicks of 47 ranks, was limited by its small scaling and stylistic inflexibility. The parish contracted consultants Scott Riedel and Associates of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to work with the architectural firm Fischer Heck in designing interior features that extensively improved the acoustical environment of the church.

Nichols & Simpson four-manual console

Nichols & Simpson four-manual console

Scott Riedel’s goal was “to hear clear and intelligible speech throughout the room, to assist musicians in developing well-balanced, blended, and projected music, and especially to enable the assembly to hear each other for wholehearted participation in sung and spoken parts of the liturgy.” Riedel’s obstacles were evident: thick red carpeting, concave-circular wall forms and a textured ceiling covered with sound-absorbing asbestos, and thin wood lattices and walls. The choir and organ were hidden behind wooden lattice work that had once served as a silent protest in the early days of Vatican II.

Riedel set out to create subtle, attractive design elements that would achieve his acoustic goals. The church’s greatest permanent acoustical challenge is its round shape, causing sound to reverberate back into the center focal point rather than mix and distribute. For this reason, the Riedel design includes what he has called “a sound supportive ceiling deck [to] allow tone to blend in the room, and the custom-designed acoustic wall panels between glass facets [to] diffuse, reflect, and temper sound in proper proportion.” Other acoustical improvements, as described by Riedel, include “new hard surface flooring throughout the room to reinforce and reverberate music and sung and spoken participation by the assembly. The sound obstructing lattice wall has been removed from the choir and organ space, allowing unimpeded tonal egress to the assembly. The facade of organ pipes and hardwood diffusers on the wall behind the choir singers also function to mix and project music throughout the room.”

In consultation with Riedel, and under the leadership of director of music Jeremy Wirths and organist Guillermo Martinez, St. Monica’s organ committee decided that a large American Classic instrument would best serve the musical needs of the par­ish. They identified choral accompaniment as a priority; the small dynamic range and lack of ensemble reeds of the previous instrument had been a hindrance to St. Monica’s music for decades. The musicians of the parish felt that a movable console would be absolutely necessary, as the church’s music space required flexibility for various ensembles.

Nichols & Simpson crew preparing toe boards

Nichols & Simpson crew preparing toe boards

The organ committee selected Nichols & Simpson Inc. of Little Rock, Arkansas, to build the new instrument. The committee was impressed by the diversity of design and tonal beauty found in the firm’s previous instruments, and they recognized that the unique modern architecture of the church would require design creativity on the part of the chosen builder. After months of work, a final plan emerged that included 54 stops and 71 ranks of pipes, with digital ranks included in order to maximize use of chamber space. There are 4,218 pipes.

The organ is played from a four-manual mov­able console, the shell constructed of oak to match the other furnishings of the church, and the interior of burl walnut. The manual keys are polished bone and rosewood, the pedals are maple and rosewood, and the drawknobs are rosewood with engraved bone faces. The combination action features 256 levels of memory, a MIDI sequencer, and USB port to back up the settings.

The Swell division, located on the left side of the organ chamber, features warm flute stops, three luscious strings/celestes, an extensive reed chorus, and an independent 4′ celeste. The boisterous character of the independent 8′ Trompette and the smoother English-styled 8′ Trumpet allow two distinct reeds on which to build a reed chorus. The division includes a full principal chorus, as well as a cleverly split Plein Jeu.

The Great division is located in the center of the organ chamber with a principal chorus built on the 16′ Double Diapason, that makes up the facade.

The Choir includes two celestes and a full array of chorus and solo reeds. The Petite Trompette serves as a well-balanced chorus reed for accompanying, while the Trombas provide pungent reeds for French literature or solo reeds to cut through a full ensemble.

The pipes of the Pedal division are spread throughout the chamber, with the largest pipes reaching from floor to ceiling behind the Swell pipes. The 16′ Open Wood is an impressive foundation for the large space of St. Monica Church. Three digital 32′ stops are effectively voiced, saving space in the chamber and filling out this solid division.

Facade pipe details

Facade pipe details

The Solo is located behind the pipes of the Great and features a commanding Tuba stop, as well as a solo Flute stop at 8′ and 4′, and a string and celeste. Because of space constraints, the English Horn and French Horn are digital stops.

Other features of the organ include a Cymbelstern (comprised of eight small Malmark handbells), a Rossignol, and harp, celesta, and chimes supplied by Walker Technical Company.

The case was designed by Frank Friemel. R.A. Colby fabricated and installed the wooden portions of the case comprising 84 individual pieces attached to an iron framework. A.R. Schopp’s Sons worked diligently with Nichols & Simpson and Frank Friemel to make the distinctive case pipe designs a reality.

Organist Guillermo Martinez stated, “This new pipe organ is indicative of the investment of energies and talents to keep traditional church music alive and vibrant for not only the parish, but also for the Dallas music community.” St. Monica is proud to have been selected to host a recital during the 2017 AGO Regional Convention in Dallas.

Since the dedication of the instrument two years ago, the parish’s liturgical music has been profoundly enriched by this stunning new instrument. The Rev. Stephen Bierschenk, pastor of St. Monica since 2008, has been delighted by the high level of interest and enthusiasm the organ has created. Of this new spirit he has written, “This beautiful organ gives voice to our desire to honor God in the best ways possible. As our soul is stirred by the beauty of a hymn, and we are thrilled by the majestic tones of an anthem, our hearts and minds are reminded that God has given us so many ways to express our joy in his gifts.”

View the stoplist

Jeremy Wirths holds degrees from the University of Kansas, Emory University, and the University of North Texas. He served his first parish as a musician when he was 15 years old, and has served a total of seven parishes in four states.

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