In early 2011, Matthews Presbyterian Church received an unexpected gift.
Frank Renfrow, the last member of the Renfrow family to own Renfrow Hardware & General Merchandise in downtown Matthews, had bequeathed the church $1 million in his will. His only stipulation was that the money be used to build a pipe organ.
The church had never had a pipe organ, although it had installed a new electric organ in 2000 when it built a new sanctuary. While Renfrow had been a lifelong member of the church, he’d been unable to attend in recent years due to his health.
“No one knew this was going to happen,” said Cara Lee Spence, who became a member of the church’s organ task force. “The family and he were all very private.”
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The church, which had about 450 members at the time, wasn’t even sure if a pipe organ would fit in its sanctuary.
The church had no plans for anything like a pipe organ, Spence said.
In the six years since Renfrow’s will was read, however, the Matthews Presbyterian organ task force, chaired by Charles “Eddie” Barefoot, has traveled around the United States to visit pipe organs and organ makers and to figure out how to best spend the $1 million gift. On SundayAUG20, the church’s new pipe organ will be played for the first time in a worship service.
Frank Renfrow grew up in a white house at 400 W. John St., which was across the street from Matthews Presbyterian.
Church members believe that Renfrow’s mother, Annie Lou McMillan Renfrow, may have had a love for organ music. Renfrow loved his mother and pipe organs; he visited many organs after her death and his bequest reflects the love he had for both.
Renfrow, however, didn’t want a “huge designation” on the organ, so out of respect for Renfrow’s preference for privacy, the church will place a small plaque on the organ in recognition of Renfrow and his mother, Spence said. Renfrow also left the church a large framed portrait of Annie Renfrow, who he calls his “beloved mother” in his will, that the church will hang in its building.
To fulfill Refrow’s bequest, the organ task force first had to learn about the pipe organ, an instrument that was invented in the third century B.C. and became the primary accompanying instrument in churches in Western churches in recent centuries. The group also had to show why an organ could be important to the church, as some church members believed the money could be better spent on more practical uses.
“I think that initially some people were not really aware of what a pipe organ really is and how it can benefit a small church,” Spence said. “I think most people would have said the organ we had at the time was fine.”
Spence had grown up around organ music, as her uncle and father “adored” pipe organs and frequently had taken her to organ recitals. Her uncle, who was a professor emeritus of organ at Texas Christian University in 2011, became an informal consultant to the task force.
He told the committee that their job was unusual, as most churches decide they want a pipe organ and then hold a fundraising campaign to pay for it.
Matthews Presbyterian now had more than enough money for a pipe organ. “We had to create that excitement and investment [about getting an organ] within the church [members],” Spence said.
The organ task force had a lot of learning ahead. Spence had the most experience with organs; one other committee member was a fan of pipe organs and organ music but didn’t know much about the instruments.
They all began asking questions about how pipe organs work, what pipe organ music would add to the church and how they could best choose an organ builder.
Readying the sanctuary
The Matthews Presbyterian organ task force chose Dan Garland, a longtime organ builder based in Fort Worth, Texas, to build and install a pipe organ for their church. The design, building and installation process can take years; Garland said he believes the Matthews Presbyterian organ is the 52nd organ he has built in his company’s 35 years or work.
The task force considered six organ companies and went on several “organ tours” before choosing Garland Pipe Organs for of his “custom approach to church organs,” Spence said.
Garland and an architect who works with his company visited the church to look at its new sanctuary before designing an organ for the space.
Spence said the space had “acoustical challenges,” and to optimize the organ’s sound the church has removed a large wall in the sanctuary, replaced its reddish-orange carpet with polished concrete, added a new sound system and redone its chancel area.
“When people first walked [into the renovated sanctuary], I think it was a real surprise,” Spence said. “I think on the whole, the reaction was very positive, and now it’s grown on people. It’s really built the excitement.”
Garland’s team drove two trucks packed with pipes and case pieces to Matthews – a two-day trip – in the fall, and in July they completed the installation and tuning of the 38-rank instrument.
The organ’s case, a wooden, free-standing structure that holds the pipes, is “a substantial size,” Garland said. Woodworkers on his staff built the furniture-quality case to fit the pipes around a large cross and round window in the front of the church.
“The way that the architect designed it is amazing,” Spence said. “If you look in the casing very carefully, you can see small crosses in the design. It’s quite something.”
The real thing
Spence believes that the Matthews Presbyterian pipe organ will be the first pipe organ installed in a church in Matthews. Other Matthews churches integrate the organ sound into their music with electric organs.
Tom Kiff, the Matthews Presbyterian organist, will play the pipe organ during regular church services and Sarah Allred, director of music ministries, will work the sound into the church’s music.
Garland said that one appeal of pipe organs is their genuine sound. “You can hear the sound being created rather than a sound being reproduced,” he said. While many churches now primarily use instruments such as guitars and pianos in worship music, Garland said pipe organs are “holding their own.”
“As an organ builder, I’ve been at it 45 years, and we’re as busy as we’ve ever been,” he said. “Churches seem to want something real and something that will be around for a long time.”
Garland said “there’s nothing quite like” the energy a pipe organ can bring to a room. “It can have an aura and a magic about it that just can’t be recreated.”
Marty Minchin is a freelance writer: email@example.com.
Want to go?
Matthews Presbyterian Church, 207 W. John St., will host a dedicatory organ recital 7-8:30 p.m. Sept. 29 with Patrick A. Scott, assistant organist-choirmaster at the Cathedral of St. Phillip in Atlanta and former associate director of music at Myers Park United Methodist Church.
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