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Sunday December 25, 2011The best gift for ChristmasBy SIMREN KAURstar2@thestar.com.myLast week, a reader wrote in about the ailing pipe organ in his church. Today, we get acquainted with the ‘Old Lady’.THE silence of the church on a quiet weekday morning was broken by the stirring notes of a grand pipe organ, which carried across the altar. Suddenly, the music went off-key when one of the keys did not stop playing.A flash of panic came across organist Leonard Selva Gurunathan’s face as he struggled to fix the tune. Within seconds, he had set the key right again and continued to play as if nothing was amiss.“It pains me to see her struggling to keep up with my playing,” Leonard says after completing the song.“Her” is the pipe organ in the 225-year-old Church of the Assumption, Penang. The “Old Lady”, as she is lovingly called, was built in 1914 by Morton & Moody of Oakham, England, but only erected in the church in 1916, probably due to the constraints imposed on shipping during World War I.Leonard and parish priest Father Dominic Santhiyagu are worried the pipe organ is on its last legs.The organ was the brainchild of Father Louis Duvelle, then the parish priest, and its design was reportedly made in consultation with the church’s organist and choir master at that time, Ben D’Cruz. It is one of only five pipe organs in Malaysia, the only one in a Catholic church, and arguably the oldest.Leonard, the church’s organist since 1998, says several people have played the instrument during her lifetime. Among them are d’Cruz, his son Arthur and grandson Raymond, Georgie Hendricks, Arthur de Souza, Leoni Chow, Ronald Gomez and Anthony Chan.“Over the years, the organ has seen much wear and tear. Several parts are not functioning well, which sometimes distrupts its performance.”For example, some of the keys get stuck when played and some of the trackers are jammed. There are also leaks in the wind chest. A major restoration project was done in the 1970s, and there is need for another now.Choir master Claude Richards recalls that in 1976, Peter Wood from Wood, Wordsworth & Co Ltd, one of the major organ builders in Britain then, offered to restore the pipe organ for free.“All he requested in return was accommodation. He arrived with his wife and son and stayed in Penang for a month to restore the organ.”Between 1977 and 1985, progressive maintenance visits were made by Anthony Welby, an organ builder from Sydney. Subsequently, care for the organ was placed in the hands of choir master and organ curator Ian Campbell, and an enthusiastic band of helpers.Among other things, Campbell and his team have replaced the organ’s bellows and restored its pneumatic pedals.“There is only so much Ian can do as he is not a professional,” says Claude. “All his knowledge is based on experience and from reading books.”“It breaks our hearts to see the Old Lady slowly dying,” says Leonard, who adds that the church has e-mailed several organ companies in Singapore, the Philippines, Britain, and Australia to ask about repairs.“One of them responded with a quotation for RM300,000, which is way over our budget. They also said that if nothing is done soon, the organ will soon play its last tune.”Church members have tried to raise funds through various ways, such as selling CDs produced by the chorus and creating awareness about the pipe organ through its Facebook page, “but we are still very short of funds”.Parish priest Father Dominic Santhiyagu says the organ plays a primary function during the weekly service at mass.“It is a sheer waste and pity to let it die off. We would love to have the organ back in its prime because we have plans to organise concerts in the future. The organ is played every Saturday during mass and during festivities such as Easter and Christmas. It has become part of the heart and soul of this church.”Leonard adds that getting the funds needed to save the organ would be the best gift for Christmas.“Restoring the organ would be a great Christmas gift for the next generation to enjoy and experience the joy of music,” he says with smile.> If you would like to help save the organ, contact the Church of Assumption’s parish house and secretariat at 04-226 1502 / 04-229 3431, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or search for ‘SAVE-Our-PIPE-Organ’ on Facebook.