Important piece of former New Bedford parish finds home in Dartmouth

By Kenneth J. Souza
Anchor Staff

SOUTH DARTMOUTH, Mass. — When Father Rodney E. Thibault, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in South Dartmouth, learned that the beautiful Rodgers pipe organ inside the former St. John the Baptist Church in New Bedford had fallen into disrepair and was likely to be auctioned off, he thought the instrument might be worth salvaging for his church.

“In my parish we really didn’t have a good organ and I knew that Father (Henry) Arruda had spent a considerable amount of money in the early ’90s when he was pastor there, installing this Rodgers organ, which was both pipe and digitized,” Father Thibault recently told The Anchor.

Father Thibault thought not only would the organ be an ideal replacement for the tired old instrument at St. Mary’s, but it also could serve as an important memento from St. John the Baptist Parish, whose former parishioners had found a new home in Dartmouth.

“I actually have a lot of people who lived in Dartmouth but were parishioners of St. John the Baptist — there was a great allegiance to St. John’s — and when St. John’s closed they started coming to Mass at St. Mary’s,” Father Thibault said. “So I thought it would be a good way to bring about a sense of healing.”

With that in mind, Father Thibault reached out to his fellow pastor, Father Jack Oliveira at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in New Bedford, which now owned all the property from the suppressed parish, and with the blessing of Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., offered to purchase the instrument.

“The bishop endorsed the idea, but I didn’t want to use parish money because we’re saving to renovate the church,” Father Thibault said. “But I was able to get a significant amount of grant money from parishioners who belong to a charitable organization that saves and restores musical instruments that have fallen into disrepair. They were really the impetus for making this project happen.”

Having received the green light and with the necessary funds secured, Father Thibault, Father Oliveira, and associates from Marshall and Ogletree, an organ restoration and repair company based in Needham, went to St. John the Baptist Church last October to assess the organ.

“It was really in bad shape,” Father Thibault said. “I was basically told that we had to gut it — and we did.”

Having sat unused since the church closed in late 2012, Father Thibault said the lack of maintenance and severe temperature changes also took a toll on the organ’s veneer.

“Because of the extremes in the church — there wasn’t any heat or air conditioning for some time — there was extreme humidity and extreme cold so the wood was just totally destroyed,” Father Thibault said. “Rebuilding the guts or the innards of the organ was not the difficult part; the difficult part, believe it or not, was restoring the woodwork. The wood was all warped and it had to be totally redone. It’s not a brand-new instrument, but for all practical purposes, it is.”

Work began in earnest last fall to restore and resurrect the Rodgers organ. Father Thibault regretted they were unable to take the elaborate bank of pipes that were once connected to the instrument because “St. Mary’s is a little too small for pipes of that magnitude.”

When Marshall and Ogletree completed the meticulous restoration project last month, the instrument was finally installed in the choir loft of St. Mary’s Church and Father Thibault immediately prepared for a formal blessing and dedication ceremony.

It was during this special Liturgy that the pastor received validation that his efforts had not been in vain.

“We blessed the organ at Mass with a great amount of fanfare — we had trumpets and violins,” Father Thibault said. “And a former parishioner of St. John the Baptist Parish came over to me — an older woman of Portuguese descent — and she said to me with tears in her eyes: ‘My heart has been healed, because a piece of St. John’s lives.’

“I thought that was beautiful and people have been so happy that we decided to restore it. It might not be the whole church, but it is a piece of something that lived inside the church. Anything that dwells in the church building is alive for us — ecclesiologically-speaking and theologically-speaking. It might just be an organ, it might be just an instrument, but it gives greater praise to God.”

Since the newly-restored Rodgers organ made its debut at St. Mary’s Parish just after Memorial Day, Father Thibault said it has really “heightened our Liturgical experience.”

“There’s a sense of awe now when I’m walking down the aisle for Mass — I feel it,” Father Thibault said. “It doesn’t sound like it used to sound. To me, there was this void before. Now we have this magnificent instrument. And another parishioner said to me this past weekend: ‘I noticed more people are singing now.’ I thought it was just me!”

Noting that it would likely cost upwards of $125,000 to purchase and install a comparable new organ, Father Thibault said he was happy they were able to do the project “at a relatively reasonable price.”

But even more important than getting a quality instrument that will elevate Mass celebrations at St. Mary’s Church without exhausting parish funds, Father Thibault keeps coming back to the comments of that one former St. John the Baptist parishioner upon hearing the Rodgers organ resonate inside its new home for the first time.

“That area of the diocese needed a little bit of healing and I think this small gesture helped,” he said. “One person said it, and that’s all I needed to hear — this did bring some closure to some people. Yes, people are still going to drive by the church and they are still going to feel badly about it closing. But I’m happy that we were able to keep a piece of that history alive, and I know that it also brought some healing to people, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

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