Sacred Heart Catholic Basilica – Timaru

7 Craigie Avenue, Parkside, Timaru

1912 Arthur Hobday; 1985 restoration with additions SIOC; 2019 partial overhaul SIOC

Gedacht (1-25 from Ped Bourdon)16'
Open DiapasonI 8'
Open DiapasonII 8'
Hohl Flute (Open from mid. C)8'
Quint2 2/3'
Mixture (19-22)II *
Open Diapason8'
Stopped Diapason8'
Celeste T.C.8'
Mixture (17-19-22)III *
Vox Humana8'
Open Diapason16'
Bourdon16' (a)
Bass Flute8' (a)
Trombone16' *
Swell to Great
Swell Octave to Great
Swell Sub Octave to Great
Great to Pedal
Swell to Pedal
Swell Octave *
Swell Sub Octave *

1912 Arthur Hobday incorporating 1848 Gray & Davison pipework from previous organ; 1985 restored with *additions SIOC

by John Hargraves MNZM

The story of the Basilica pipe organ

In 1985-86 SIOC restored and enlarged the highly-valued pipe organ in Timaru’s Sacred Heart Basilica. This 1912 instrument was the last work of Wellington organ builder Arthur Hobday when he was about 60 years of age.  Tragically he took his own life while the organ was being installed by his son, Arthur Adrian Hobday.

I think Arthur had a grand vision for this instrument as evidenced by the beautiful Kauri case and three-manual console that he designed and built for it, but it was also clear from the installed two manuals and pedals that there was no obvious room or budget for any more pipes.  To this day the 3rd keyboard remains a mute testament to his vision.

The organ contains 10 stops from the redundant 1848 Gray and Davison instrument that the Timaru parish bought from St Patrick’s parish, Church Hill, Sydney and had it installed in 1891 in the old  wooden church on the same site. After a fire at the church in 1908, the organ was smoke and water damaged. It was removed for repair and was being reinstalled in 1910, when another fire completely destroyed the building, leaving only the uninstalled pipework remaining. Arthur Hobday was commissioned to build a new 23 stop organ for the new Basilica incorporating 10 ranks of salvaged pipework from the 1848 organ.

SIOC’s restoration involved the addition of 3 new ranks and 2 Swell couplers and a great improvement to the efficiency of response from organ’s pneumatic action by the simple expedient of fitting helper springs to the primary valves. The result was a two-manual instrument that could deliver a repertoire normally associated with a three-manual console – something no doubt Arthur Hobday would have appreciated.

The organ had been so well built and preserved that we didn’t have to take it all out, not even the sound boards and bellows, which are still to this day mostly in almost original condition.

Thirty-five years later we are for the first time renewing the fine-leather covered pneumatic motors that relay all of the organist’s commands from the keyboard to the pipes. All of these were still functional but some had already failed and been renewed and it was clear that at 107 years of age, the closure of the Basilica for earthquake strengthening was the right time to renew all the motors together, so they could be done efficiently as a batch at far less cost and future inconvenience than just waiting for them to individually fail.

 One of the key components of the rebuild was to correct an infamous fault in the pneumatic-action organ.

“When the organ was turned off the pipe valves would fall into the open position as the pressure dropped. This would result in loud hrrmphing like a herd of elephants on the loose, along with a variety of other squeaks, wails and groans.

“This startling and sometimes frightening range of side effects used to catch out even organists who knew to expect it, especially if they were alone in the basilica in the dark.”

Another aspect of this fault also meant that organists were unable to produce a trill or any other form of ornamentation due to the sluggish response of the action.

A cure for both ills was effected by fitting all the valves with springs to hold the valves in the off position against gravity until the organ wind reached operational pressure.

The final result has been regarded by most organists who have subsequently played the organ as exceptional, although John admits that Australian organist David Kinsella was not among the refurbishment’s fans.

“He commented that the instrument didn’t inspire him any longer but others such as New Zealand organist John Wells (who recorded a CD on the organ) and Swiss organist Irwin Mesmer were entranced by it.”

Mr Mesmer’s visit proved an intriguing one as it was the first time most of the SIOC team had encountered the European organists’ tradition of handing over a wide range of console duties to an assistant.

“The assistant would have to bob up and down to change the music, draw out and change all the stops (which for the Basilica organ meant you needed two assistants, one on each side). Trying to follow all this on an unfamiliar avant-garde piece, which was full of strange notations, was a particular challenge. He did get his comeuppance on one occasion when a trombone stop came on in a quiet patch when it wasn’t supposed to.”

Joseph Nolan, one of the greatest living organists, formerly organist of the Chapel Royal and now the director of music at St Georges Cathedral in Perth, gave one of the most memorable organ concerts I have heard anywhere, on this organ as the 2010 guest celebrity organist for the NZ National Congress of Organists.

Over the years, my wife Val and I have invited many notable organists from all over the world to give concerts on this organ, knowing that they and the many people who come to hear them would find the wonderful sound of this organ enjoyable, even though its relatively small size and old-fashioned mechanism require more adaptive physical and mental effort from the performer than most modern concert organs do.

We have never had one say that they did not enjoy the experience nor have we had audiences that don’t come back time and again to hear it in the beautiful space of the Basilica. This organ is and will remain one of New Zealand’s best loved and most prized heritage instruments.