My Organ Caught on Fire

We began our Sunday rehearsal as usual this morning, which meant I had a few minutes to run through my prelude and postlude on the organ before we began rehearsing our small adult choir.  I flipped on the organ (yes, it’s electronic—no judgement!), and went through my pieces…everything was fine.  When everyone was ready, I stepped over to the piano and we started running through Psalm 63.  Business as usual, but not for long.  Moments later, we hear an overwhelming “BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM” ransacking the sound system.

Usually such things don’t perturb our rehearsal, but we stopped for this one.  “We’re having problems with the sound system again…it’s probably Father’s mic,” our director explained as he went to turn the sound system off.  We all shook our heads, and were about to pick up with verse three, when I—who was sitting closest to the organ—began to smell wafts of acrid burning plastic.  “There’s something burning!” I burst out.  And, if your next question is, “Did your organ catch on fire?”  the answer would be “Yes, yes it did.”

We sprang into action, turned off the organ and pulled the plug.  There was some warmth, but (thankfully), no tongues of fire.  There may have been smoldering, but no smoke.  What did we do next?  We took a deep breath and we picked up with verse three.

What do you do when ritual is interrupted?  Certainly, things happen all the time during the liturgy which, normally, we would not wish to happen: there’s a medical emergency, an acolyte falls over (locked knees), Mrs. So-and-So forgot to turn her cell phone off AGAIN.  Or, in our case, an instrument bites the dust in no small way.

When ritual is interrupted—our first instinct might be to stop and stare, to glare, or perhaps to help (sometimes unhelpfully) to resolve the situation.  In any circumstance where the unexpected happens, safety first.  For us, we turned the organ off and unplugged it—we checked for smoke and, seeing none, moved on to prepare the music for Mass.  Other situations might call for an announcement for assistance, or a congregation member taking charge of that dizzy acolyte and helping him to the sacristy, or helping our friend turn off her cell phone once and for all.  With safety concerns addressed, and persons (or objects) cared for and attended to, the ritual can and, I might say, should continue.  Clearly, a certain amount of flexibility and agility are needed, but an interrupted ritual will still move on precisely because it is a ritual, not a computer program where one glitch will send the whole thing south.  Human participation and creativity keep our liturgies alive, even when our organs are dead.

In the meantime, I’ll look forward to a repair person arriving to care for our instrument…and I’ll be saying a lot of prayers of intercession to St. Cecilia!


  1. There’s a reason why most electronic instruments are described as “toasters”…

    More seriously, on December 5, 1938, the President-Director General of Orme Limited wrote to the Sacred Congregation of Rites asking if it would give its approval to the instrument known as a Hammond Organ. The Congregation’s preliminary reply was negative, and would be definitively confirmed on September 4 1939. We all know what happened the day before that… As far as anyone knows, neither the Congregation nor the Second Vatican Council ever revoked this decision concerning electronic organs, even though our present practice would make us think otherwise. (I’m sure someone will unearth a decree, though!)

    And talking of decisions that have never been repealed but have been ignored in more recent times, here’s the first half of para 71 of the 1958 Instruction De musica sacra et sacra liturgia:

    The use of automatic instruments and machines, such as the automatic organ, phonograph, radio, tape or wire recorders, and other similar machines, is absolutely forbidden in liturgical functions and private devotions, whether they are held inside or outside the church, even if these machines be used only to transmit sermons or sacred music, or to substitute for the singing of the choir or faithful, or even just to support it.

  2. At Mass once the fire alarm went off right after the consecration. We directed the 300 people out the door and when I finally got out (last one checking everything), two of our sacristans met me with three full ciboria and a covered chalice saying “even Jesus got out.” After everything settled down, we returned and finished.

    Luckily in Paul Inwood’s admonition from 1958…they don’t mention iPads because we can control lighting, power point music words, microphone levels, heat, and start the coffee for coffee and donuts with just a few buttons.

  3. @Ed Nash:

    …two of our sacristans met me with three full ciboria and a covered chalice saying “even Jesus got out.”

    This made me remember, once again, this account of what happened during that horrible attack in Yemen on the morning of March 4th earlier this year (

    Sister Sally ran to the convent to try to warn Uzhunnalil. He had heard the screaming, and instead of trying to escape, he ran to the chapel to consume all the consecrated hosts it contained so that the assailants would not be able to defile them.

    Fr. Uzhunnalil is the Salesian priest, who, kidnapped then, is still missing.

    When I first read this, I cried. Reading it again makes me choke up all over again. It kinda gives a new meaning to “In any circumstance where the unexpected happens, safety first.”

    Anyway, on a less sad note, this from the OP is beautifully said:

    Human participation and creativity keep our liturgies alive, even when our organs are dead.


  4. For some ritual studies theorizing of this subject, I offer two pointers to literature that deals with this issue:
    an edited volume, When Rituals Go Wrong: Mistakes, Failure, and the Dynamics of Ritual. And Barbara Stollberg-Rilinger, Rituale, 2013: reflections on “when do rituals fail” appear (pp. 211-226).

  5. I can remember an Easter Vigil that was paused as a congregant had a seizure. The presider indicated by gesture that the keyboardist play music while the EMTs were awaited. The keyboardist, mortified/stunned, engaged in silent prayer instead, which was adopted by the congregation.

    I recall another occasion when electrical power was lost early during Mass. The presider, fortunately having be trained in public elocution, slowed down his speech and projected, relying entirely on the natural acoustic (it was not an intimate space – about 180′ long, 80′ wide and the vault was about 70′ high, if memory serves). It took about 3-4 minutes for everyone to adjust their aural expectations, but after that, it was splendid. And illuminating. I’ve never forgotten it.

  6. Many years ago during an ordination in our seminary chapel, the book bearer, kneeling before the bishop, collapsed. The assisting priest bent down and picked up the Pontificale and said “Get me another book bearer!”

  7. I have to respond here. Picture it: Saint Charles Church in Woburn, Massachusetts, some time around 1970. It was the Fourth Sunday of Advent and the cantor was leading the responsorial psalm from the ambo. The “Jesse Tree,” with all its ornaments, was located adjacent to the ambo and . . . you guessed it. It began to give way and headed straight for the cantor. He simply raised his left hand, caught the tree, held onto it, and never missed a note. Gave new meaning to “O come. O come, O rod of Jesse’s stem!”

    1. @Jerry Galipeau:

      Excellent story.

      Total tangent, but since you were in the seminary in the Boston area, you might find this of interest: a friend of mine who lives in Boston’s South End just emailed me that the interior of the old Immaculate Conception Church (closed in 2007) is being opened to the public for one hour this evening (6-7pm ET), as demolition of the interior (the exterior having landmark status) commences to be replaced by a few dozen condominiums:

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:

        Karl, have the altar relic stones of the condemned churches been preserved? A decrepit church in New Haven had its stone “rescued”, as well as some of the stained glass and side altar statues, before the knockdown. The destruction of stones strikes me as desecration, even if the altar has been deconsecrated. The stones could be used in new or refubished altars.

        Were I a priest, I would recite aufer a nobis quietly before the opening osculation of the relic stone, and oramus te after the osculation. What beautiful and profound prayers! Both prayers proclaim that the Mass is for the living and the dead and witnessed by the angels and saints. However both prayers are devoid of meaning without a stone or an antimension (Greek corporal).

        Something tells me that the Archdiocese really doesn’t care about profundities. They just need the cash.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo:
        Well, that was not an Archdiocesan property, but a Jesuit property. The original sanctuary altar was deconsecrated 30 years ago, and I haven’t a clue what would have been done then….

  8. When Pope John Paul said Mass in Miami on his 1987 U.S. trip, his outdoor Mass, with thousands present, was interrupted by a storm with plenty of lightning. Whoever makes these decisions hustled the pope off the altar and sent everybody home. The pope, it was officially announced, did finish the Mass inside a trailer without the congregation.

    It was beastly hot, and my altar boy son was praying for rain. He must have overdone it. He said he didn’t think he had also prayed for the lightning.

  9. On a somber note our Choir Director suffered what appeared to be a stroke five minutes before Mass was to begin. EMT’s were summoned and while the Assembly waited in prayer the Presider anointed her. A choir member stepped in to direct and because of our choirs location Mass was able to begin as the EMT’s did their work and with the assist of a few Ministers of Hospitality removed our Choir Director to the ambulance. The choir members though shaken, exercised their ministry very well.Unfortunately two days later a brain infection turned very aggressive and caused her death. Again our Choir did their very best under difficult circumstances as they lead the music for her funeral.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *