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The pipe organ is a century old, manufactured in 1914 and installed in 1916.

Footprints

Malaysia’s Oldest Pipe Organ is Back in Shape

The restoration of the century-old pipe organ of George Town’s Church of the Assumption has been a labour of love for a community.

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We heard footsteps climbing cautiously on the narrow stairway of the church, and soon, a tall Dutchman emerged onto the upper floor of the Church of the Assumption in George Town.

He smiled at us. He wasn’t lost, as we initially thought. This tourist had deliberately made his way up here because he wanted to see the church’s century-old pipe organ.

The resident organist Leonard Selva, who was preparing for Sunday mass, invited the Dutchman to try out the instrument. And soon, the rich notes of a Bach prelude reverberated through the sanctuary lit prettily by colours streaming in through stained glass windows.

It was a magical moment.

Yet just a few years ago, this pipe organ wouldn’t have produced anything close to these magnificent notes. Back then, it was a dying instrument with keys that stuck regularly. Leonard recalled that he once even had to stop midway through a song to pull out a stubborn key.

Over 100 years of use had seen the organ deteriorate badly. But the story of its restoration is an amazing one of serendipity. The organ, with 600 pipes, was made in England in 1914 and installed in the church in 1916. It’s one of the only five pipe organs in Malaysia, and at that time it was the oldest playable organ on the peninsula.

Leonard, who learnt to play on an electronic organ, had been fascinated by it since he was a teenager. He would take a bus to the church every week just to listen to it. In 1990 he joined the church choir and taught himself how to play the pipe organ.

“In fact, the main reason that I joined the choir here was this organ. I had always wanted to play it,” he says. “It was heavy stuff!”

Literally so. The organ needed a very strong touch – by its nature and also because it was out of repair. Leonard had to develop a particular playing style to fit this pipe organ’s peculiar idiosyncrasies.

“The condition of the organ required challenging performance techniques. Of course I can play other pipe organs, but I am custom designed for this organ,” he says.

Yet, even with the skill of the organists and DIY maintenance by the church’s community, the organ was truly on its last legs. And no one had the £52,000 needed to send it to England to be restored.

But then, a series of chance encounters took place.

The plight of the organ became publicly known after Leonard, who is also passionate about photography and film making, came upon a call by Discovery Channel for entries from first-time film-makers.

He proposed a short documentary on pipe organs, which eventually focused on the Assumption Church’s dying instrument. It was aired in 2007, and that seemed the end of the matter.

Then, five years later, in 2012, the then Tourism Minister Ng Yen Yen caught a rerun of the documentary. She rang up Leonard, whom she had never met, to ask about the organ. He told her its story, and she pledged to help.

Five months later, funding was obtained from AirAsia and Star Publications (now Star Media Group), and with further help from Think City, the state government, and the church and its congregation, enough money was collected for its restoration.

Leonard Selva with the pipe organ, now draped with blue canvas to protect it from dust during the restoration of the church.

The organ was dismantled into hundreds of parts, boxed up and sent to Harrogate in England where it was restored by the son of an organ-restorer who used to do repairs on this very pipe organ.

Ten months later, the boxes came back, and the parts reinstalled. By November 2013 the organ was working perfectly for the first time in decades.

“We had music playing in the church again, and that was all that mattered. Things have worked out miraculously for this organ,” Leonard says, still marvelling at the serendipitous turn of events.

But to him, the story isn’t really about the restoration of the pipe organ, compelling as the narrative is.

Leonard Selva with the pipe organ, now draped with blue canvas to protect it from dust during the restoration of the church.

It’s a story of faith, as well as the dedication and grit of the community. The organ had played faithfully for 100 years, through the sheer hard work of the church community in maintaining it with the barest of resources. And thus, he said community service is the focal point of the story.

“We play to enhance the prayer experience, and that is a very big responsibility,” he says. “The organ was restored because of the community, and should serve the community. That part is vital.”

What next?

For now, the pipe organ will fall silent for a bit as the church has been shut for restoration. Founded in 1786, the old church is long overdue for a facelift, and will undergo thorough renovation before reopening in 2017.

The organ is already covered in heavy blue canvas to protect it from the dust, and it will be a year before its majestic sounds ring out again.

But beyond this particular organ, Leonard is chuffed that its story has already inspired the restoration of the pipe organ in St Mary’s Cathedral in KL by the very same organ restorer in Harrogate.

“Maybe one day, we may even have a pipe organ festival in Penang and Malaysia,” he says. “The journey has been a gift from God, and it’s always in my mind that this work is for the community.”

Carolyn Hong lives in Ba Kelalan sometimes, in KL sometimes. A former journalist who once chased the big stories for a regional newspaper, she now hunts for the small stories in Malaysia’s smallest places.
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