Hyogo Pipe Organ Finds New Home in Vietnam Cathedral

ITAMI, Hyogo Prefecture–A magnificent pipe organ has found a new owner after a 2-year struggle to avoid dismantling and despite objections from some locals.

The instrument will be provided free of charge to a Vietnamese cathedral.

Chie Seo, 62, an organist at Itami, described the instrument’s impending move as “regrettable”.

“I came up with ways to continue using the organ for local citizens,” Seo said. “My only consolation is that it will be installed in a cathedral to dedicate the music to God and fulfill its original purpose.”

The city of Itami installed the instrument in the Municipality-run Sun City Hall Elder Clearinghouse at a cost of 70 million yen ($560,000) three decades ago.

The city government had started looking for a new owner two years earlier, but no takers had put off the hall’s renovation plan for a year.

It remains to be determined how the church will raise the funds to cover the move and maintenance of the equipment.

The city of Itami launched a campaign in June 2020 to find those in need of the instrument through social media, such as posting messages that it would like to “donate a large pipe organ”.

The instrument is 7 meters high and includes 1,696 pipes.

The organ was commissioned by the city of Itami, a sister city of Hasselt in Belgium. A Belgian manufacturer has specially designed the equipment, allowing it to adapt to the layout of the room and to be adapted to the humid climate of Japan.

However, its maintenance and repair costs were too high given the limited budget allocated to the welfare programs for the elderly, according to the municipality’s section for the social affairs of the elderly and other residents, which is responsible of the device. Thus, it was decided to abandon the instrument.

Music industry players have lambasted the city’s treatment of the instrument, as the municipality apparently deemed it embarrassing during an organ contribution campaign.

According to the original plan, Itami City was to part ways with the organ in fiscal year 2020 to allow for renovation work on the hall starting in fiscal year 2021.

Nobody wanted the organ, however, because of the two conditions attached to taking the organ – to enjoy it fully as a musical instrument and to bear all the costs. Some members of the municipality’s assembly have suggested it be “scrapped and discarded by the city” unless a recipient emerges by the end of the 2021 fiscal year in March.

Fate intervened when Chikara Maruyama, 75, a “barrier-free” industrial designer in Kumamoto, contacted the city.

Maruyama, who built and repaired pipe organs, learned of the Itami affair by accident from an acquaintance. He decided the gear “shouldn’t be thrown away” after seeing it in August last year.

He emailed 100 establishments, including churches, but none of them accepted his offer. Maruyama therefore relied on Google Maps to spot relatively large churches outside of Japan that might have the organ installed on their grounds.

Vietnam was chosen as a target in part because Catholic churches are scattered across the former French colony.

Hearing that a priest regularly comes to a church in Kumamoto to celebrate mass in Vietnamese, Maruyama got to know Pham Hong Thinr, 53, assistant pastor of Oita Catholic Church in Oita.

Pham and Maruyama went to Itami and listened to the musical instrument being played. Recalling the visit, Pham said he had “never seen such an impressive pipe organ”.

With Pham’s help, St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi showed up to accept the equipment. As the establishment founded in 1886 has 3,000 faithful, they found that an organ was essential for their weekly mass.

The organ could also be used in concerts as part of cultural exchanges with other nations since the cathedral is in the Vietnamese capital.

The free transfer of the organ to the cathedral was officially approved by the Itami town assembly in March.

The cathedral operator is expected to invest at least 20 million yen to introduce the instrument. Pham contacted its creator, Guido Schumacher, to possibly help him move and repair the organ.

The instrument is due out of Sun City Hall by the end of June.

“We are now working desperately to solicit contributions,” Pham said. “We can ask for help from other churches in Hanoi.”

Maruyama said people should imagine what would have happened if no one showed up to accept the organ.

“Although nothing changed in my reviews, it was still inappropriate that the senior citizens section had been in charge of the organ for so long,” Maruyama said. “The art and culture department in charge would have changed so much.”

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