Share story

NEW YORK — Joseph Vitacco III remembers what captivated him when he was a child and his grandmother took him to Mass: not the sight of the priests in their robes, not the stained-glass windows soaring beyond the arches, but the sound of the pipe organ. “It was rich, powerful and ethereal, all at the same time,” he recalled the other day. “Sort of like an orchestra.”

That sound, heard in the early 1970s, and that instrument, at Our Lady of Refuge Roman Catholic Church in Midwood, Brooklyn, shaped his life. He took organ lessons and, when he was in high school, he learned to make repairs, replacing the dried-out leather lining deep inside in the organ’s wind chest.

He wrote about that in his application to the University of Notre Dame and got in, despite warnings from his guidance counselor that his chances were slim.

In his 20s, he started a record label and made compact discs of famous organists playing important instruments around the world. The public-radio program “Pipedreams” broadcast a segment about him. He moved out of the city, and the organ languished.

Now, at 45, he has come home again, sort of. Vitacco has masterminded the rebuilding of the instrument that started it all, the organ at Our Lady of Refuge, even though he now lives more than 230 miles away, not far from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

It was a six-year crusade, and he used 21st-century tools like YouTube and Facebook to reach beyond Midwood. With help from his friends in the organ world — in this country and in Europe — he raised about $250,000.

Few of the donors attend Our Lady of Refuge; many have never even been there. One person who donated more than $10,000 will set foot in the church for the first time on Oct. 18, when the celebrated French organist Olivier Latry plays a dedication recital.

At Our Lady of Refuge the congregation had come to depend on a grand piano near the front of the sanctuary. By the time Vitacco dropped in again, in 2006, the organ, unplayed, had become unplayable.

“Organs like this are of a very certain vintage, built in a way that’s specific to the time from which they come,” said Stephen Tharp, a concert organist who was one of the last to play the organ at Our Lady of Refuge. “When they’re left to sit for a while, they become dull. It’s like a grand old lady whose clothes have been left in mothballs too long and gets a makeover.”

But the deteriorating organ was not the church’s biggest problem. Water had seeped through the walls of the French Gothic-style building, which was dedicated in 1934.

The church, short on cash, could scarcely afford repairs like repointing bricks. But the organ pipes had to come out before any structural work could begin.

The church paid for their removal, but that was where the pastor, the Rev. Michael Perry, drew the line. “He said, ‘I don’t have any money in the budget’ ” to rebuild the organ, Vitacco recalled, adding, “I had to agree. You can’t take money away from helping people.”

Undeterred, Vitacco got to work raising money.

The organ, built by George Kilgen & Son of St. Louis, was taken apart, piece by piece. Vitacco documented that in a video with “The Stars and Stripes Forever” as the soundtrack. The 1,800 dusty pipes were sent to Ohio to be cleaned or replaced if they could not be salvaged. The three-manual console was sent to Missouri to be rebuilt.

Everything was brought back in June and reassembled by the team that did a similar job for the organ at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. And now, the 79-year-old instrument at Our Lady of Refuge can be played again.

Vitacco cheered on Facebook. “The wind system is so quiet, you cannot hear the organ is on in the choir loft (used to sound like Niagara Falls),” he wrote.

The audience for the organ, the congregation of Our Lady of Refuge, has changed with time; many have not ever heard the organ played.

The church was founded by Irish and German Catholics in 1911. Perry explained that the parish had changed with the neighborhood, and today, the priests say Mass in English, Spanish and Creole. The church oversees a pantry that provides food for three meals a day to 300 people. The church also plans to reopen a homeless shelter in the basement of the rectory.

As the organ project neared completion, Vitacco treated the organ technicians to dinner at a Manhattan steakhouse. He had the waiter photograph them, smiling before the main course, and posted the image online, but not before adding a careful caption: “No donor monies were used to pay for this dinner.” (To stretch the budget for the project, the technicians had been living in the rectory of another church instead of in a hotel, as they usually would.)

And now? Tharp, the concert organist, played it last month and said that it was “glorious and thrilling” to put the rebuilt instrument through its paces.

“When you think of the decades when everyone heard it in less than its full glory,” he said, “that’s a very exciting feeling.”