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The Pipe Organ at OHPC


Oak Hills Presbyterian Church is proud of its splendid pipe organ.  Constructed in 2004 by local organ builder John G. Ballard, the instrument has two manuals, three separate divisions, and 27 ranks of pipes, about 1600 in total count.  The organ features a very bright sound reflective of its Classic American tonal design.  The instrument occupies the entire front section of the church’s chancel, with the Swell manual on the left, and Great manual on the right, and the Pedal division interspersed throughout.  It is controlled by a French-style low profile console that permits the organist to direct and have eye contact with the choir.


Oak Hills has not always had a first-class pipe organ.  Music during the congregation’s first 14 years was presented on either piano or electronic organ by Elaine King, the church’s musician.  In the early 1970’s, the congregation decided to acquire its first pipe organ, awarding a contract to the Frels Pipe Organ Company of Victoria, Texas.  For the Oak Hills organ, Mr. Frels created from scratch a mechanical action (tracker) organ of 15 ranks (sets) of pipes, with a total of 890 pipes.  In addition to sourcing new pipes, Mr. Frels also recycled some 19th Century pipe sets from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Brenham, Texas and from Grace Episcopal Church in Alvin, Texas.


The Frels organ, dedicated on October 17, 1971 in a recital by noted local organist Dr. Bess Hieronymus, was in vogue for the day, with a sharp sound and mechanical action reminiscent of Bach-style Baroque organs.  When John C. Lile was appointed music director in 1978, the organ was in its prime.


By 2001, the organ had passed its third decade, and some of its limitations and mechanical problems were apparent.  The leadership of Oak Hills formed an organ committee chaired by charter member A.W. Betts to decide what to do.  They secured proposals for a new instrument from several prominent pipe organ builders and from high-tech digital organ companies.


On June 19, 2001, the Session awarded a contract to the low bidder, Ballard Pipe Organs of San Antonio, Texas to construct an entirely new electric-action pipe organ.  John G. Ballard had been active as a San Antonio-based organ builder for 20 years with an active maintenance business.  Oak Hills’s contract called for Mr. Ballard to incorporate the old Frels pipe ranks and add 12 additional ranks of new pipes, nearly doubling the size of the finished organ. The design of the new Ballard organ was to be Classic American in tone, rather than the Baroque sound of the Frels organ.  To do this, Mr. Ballard re-voiced many of the old organ ranks, aided by ongoing consultation with Mr. Lile.  The Frels organ had been dismantled and moved to storage.  During the interim, the church relied on an electric Gulbranson organ donated by Lawrence Savage.  In the meantime, work was underway in the church chancel to prepare a large pipe chamber to house the pipework and allied electrical components.


Mr. Ballard’s contract price was extremely reasonable, a veritable bargain today, but in awarding him the job, the church accepted his slow speed.  Toward the end of the project, A.W. Betts and the Pastor sent a stern letter to Mr. Ballard urging him to complete the work and finish the organ “for our impatient congregation.”


The completed organ is a masterpiece for medium-sized pipe organs.  The 27 ranks of pipes (about 1600 in total count) are controlled by a low-profile French-style console, specifically selected by Mr. Lile to allow choir directing from the bench.  The organ features four separate reed stops – an Oboe, a Trumpet, a Trompette, and a brash Festival Trumpet. The organ has solid organ foundation tones, clear flute tones, simmering strings, and a Zimbelstern (bell) stop.  These voicing particulars may be heard by attentive listeners each Sunday.


John Lile served with distinction as the church’s organist and music director from August 1978 until December 2016, making him the longest-serving employee in the congregation’s history.   On December 3, 2017 the Session dedicated the organ in John’s memory, placing a brass plate on the organ console.  John was very pleased to learn of the dedication plans, but he died two weeks before they occurred.


The great Ballard organ functions exactly as John Lile, A.W. Betts, and the church leadership intended.  The Ballard organ has lifted all of us to a higher plane of spirituality for more than a dozen years.  This King of Instruments has woven an indelible strand of musicality into our music and worship program.  As Charles Wesley’s lyric reminds: “Rejoice! again I say, rejoice!” [Philippians 4:4].

 -         Composed by Gregory A. Nussel, Organist and Music Director