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Press Releases

Partners For Sacred Places Announces Groundbreaking Initiative To Preserve Historic Organs In Philadelphia, Foster Community

October 23, 2019 | By Jonathan Eifert Public Relations

PHILADELPHIA — Embracing new and creative approaches, a groundbreaking initiative PLAYING AND PRESERVING: Saving and Activating Philadelphia’s Historic Pipe Organs to Advance Music and Community aims to generate public support for the preservation and active use of Philadelphia’s organ heritage by building relationships between congregations, artists, music lovers, organ builders, and the broader public. This exciting venture is led by Partners for Sacred Places, in collaboration with a team of interdisciplinary partners, including Astral Artists, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Bowerbird.

Philadelphia’s organs, and the sacred places that contain them, are some of the city’s greatest treasures. Yet, changing religious landscapes, musical tastes, and technology over the last 20 to 30 years are putting both sacred places and their historic organs at risk. One Philadelphia organist estimated that nearly 50% of the instruments featured in the Organ Historical Society’s 1996 national convention in Philadelphia could be partially destroyed, dormant, or unplayable.

“Our project will turn this problem into an advantage, by leveraging the organ and amplify one of the most important but typically unappreciated characteristics of sacred places — their auditory and aural qualities — to provide a rich, multi-sensory context for individuals, families, and artists to experience historic places in a powerful way,” said Bob Jaeger, president of Partners for Sacred Places. “This experience will be supported by, among other strategies, place-based storytelling, and interactive conversations around what place means to each of us and how it defines our sense of identity and community, as well as engaging history through art.”

Playing and Preserving will identify key historic organs at risk in sacred places throughout Philadelphia’s neighborhoods; activate these important instruments through technical assistance and support to the congregations that steward them; and work with project partners and artists to develop concerts that engage the local community’s interest in historic preservation through the experience of music.

Assessing the Vulnerability

Partners for Sacred Places is collaborating with organ performance students from the Curtis Institute of Music to conduct an innovative survey approximately 50 historic organs, including many at risk in historic sacred places outside of Philadelphia’s urban core. Data on instrument construction, condition and age is being collected along with information about congregational health, collaborative readiness, openness to the arts, and other key factors. The instrument data, including audio recordings of the pipe organs and photos of the sites, will be made available to the public through a collaboration with the Organ Historical Society. Artists, performers, and curators will be able to use the database so that these venues and instruments will become resources for their practice.

Building Capacity to Play & Preserve

Partners for Sacred Places is providing a training and capacity-building program for a cohort of congregations this fall to help them gain knowledge and skills to better care for their instruments, fundraise for maintenance and capital investments, and develop relationships with artists around mission and vision alignment. Each congregation will be given a complete, professional assessment of their historic organ and technical assistance to promote repairs, conservation, and fundraising help for on-going maintenance. Technical assistance will also help congregations make key, strategic repairs that will make their instruments playable and useful for performances and events. 

The training draws on Partners for Sacred Places’ highly-regarded capacity-building programs, including Making Homes for the Arts in Sacred Places, that assist congregations in making the most of their properties as assets for ministry. The content will be customized to focus on sound stewardship of these instruments, community-partnership building, and community-wide fundraising. In addition to training, this program will provide grants to a number of congregations to support preservation and repair of their historic organs. Each church receiving a grant will match the award with funds they raise using new tools and resources gathered during the training that will help them reach out to a wide network for support.

Pilot Performances with Astral Artists; Play On Philly at St. Mary’s Hamilton Village

As one part of this forward-thinking project, Partners for Sacred Places has collaborated with Astral Artists to organize a series of performances and events, which will highlight the historic organ in ways that juxtapose and combine genres and styles of music to engage the local community in preservation through music and bring together classical musicians of all ages in exploration and celebration of the organ—historically the musical center of a sacred place.

All concerts are designed to welcome families and community members and embrace their curiosity about the organ and classical music. These concerts allow the organ to return to the center of music making, with a modern twist of musicians of all ages performing together with the organ and building community through art and personal connection.

Each performance will be a holistic event that integrates the story of the historic sacred place, the community context, and the instrument so that audiences can move beyond passive participation to more profound levels of personal engagement. These events will include engagement with the audience and their reflections on what they have heard, seen, and felt, as well as how the music and storytelling have affected their perception of the place and conversely, of the art that’s been presented in ways that are potentially numerous, unexpected, and lasting.

The concerts will be preceded by child-friendly pre-concert Experience Stations (30 minutes prior to the concert start time) that will cover topics such as organ education, performance practices, rehearsal techniques, and cross-genre program planning. 

In the weeks before these concert experiences, Astral Artists will mentor the POP students during four short residency visits, building musical skills and relationships between young musicians actively studying and world-class musicians who perform all over the world.

All concerts are free, open to the public, and take place on the following dates and times. Tickets are not required, but RSVPs are encouraged.


Friday, October, 25, 2019, 6-7pm


  • Project Fusion, saxophone quartet

  • Michael Lawrence, Director of Music/Organist/Choirmaster at St. Mary’s Hamilton Village

  • Play On Philly Wind Ensemble


Friday, November 22, 2019, 6-7pm


  • Thomas Mesa, cello

  • Greg Zelek, organ

  • Play On Philly Cello Ensemble


Saturday, December 21, 2019, 2-3pm


  • Thomas Mesa, cello

  • Greg Zelek, organ

  • Chrystal E. Williams, mezzo-soprano

  • Play On Philly Symphony Orchestra


Each performance will take place at St. Mary’s Hamilton Village, 3916 Locust Walk, Philadelphia, PA. This historic church was first built in 1824, and the present Gothic Revival structure of fieldstone was first used in 1873. Changes were made after a disastrous fire in 1936, including the present organ, an Opus 963 organ by Aeolian-Skinner Organ Co., installed in the fall of 1937. The church now sits on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Pipe organs are an important part of our nation’s fabric and its congregations and musicians. Without this initiative and the model it offers, many of these culturally significant civic treasures will succumb to the effects of age and disrepair and ultimately disappear from our lives,” said Jaeger. “This initiative will allow Partners for Sacred Places and its collaborators to advance their work by bringing the performing arts into preservation as a new way to offer sensory experiences that increase the appreciation of historic architecture, and create a model for other regions to follow.”

Major support for Playing and Preserving has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from Wyncote Foundation and The 25th Century Foundation. 

To learn more about this groundbreaking initiative and be notified about upcoming events, visit Playing and Preserving at



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