ORONO, Maine — David Wallace watched late Tuesday morning as a group of men pushed a loaded dolly into a truck parked on Main Street in front of the former St. Mary of the Assumption Catholic Church building.
Wallace made a thumbs-up sign, and a few onlookers smiled at him.
The dolly’s load — an estimated 500-pound piece of the pipe organ that was used for more than 100 years at St. Mary’s before the church closed earlier this year — represented what is likely to be the toughest part of the week for David E. Wallace & Co.
The Gorham-based company, which builds, repairs and moves pipe organs, is transplanting the organ from St. Mary’s to Holy Family Catholic Church in Old Town, about four miles north on Route 2, where the organ will be installed in a previously empty loft.
“That thing is the heaviest piece,” Wallace said as the group unloaded the dolly inside the truck. “If that thing made it down, everything else will go just fine.”
A group of volunteers from the newly formed Resurrection of Our Lord Parish and area Knights of Columbus members helped Wallace’s company move the organ. The new parish is made up of congregations from the former St. Mary’s, the two St. Ann Catholic churches on Indian Island and in Bradley, Holy Family in Old Town and Our Lady of Wisdom at the Newman Center on the University of Maine campus.
Tuesday also presented an opportunity to see the rare sight of a deconstructed organ.
The 750-pipe organ, a 1906 Estey Opus 325 constructed in Brattleboro, Vt., is expected to be reinstalled and tuned by Friday, in time for Thomas Jones, an organist and choir director, to play the instrument during services this weekend.
The organ, which is about 15 feet across, had been sitting unused at St. Mary’s since the church held its final Mass on Jan. 1. The Rev. Wilfred P. Labbe, St. Mary’s pastor, told the Bangor Daily News last year that the decision to close the church came because of declining attendance, an aging membership, its proximity to the Newman Center religious facility, and extensive repairs needed on the buildings.
The St. Mary’s buildings, including the church, rectory and convent, are for sale.
Since the final Mass, there have been discussions about moving the organ to Holy Family, which has an electric organ but no pipe organ. Labbe himself advocated for the move, Jones said.
“[Labbe’s] big feeling about this was this organ is one of our treasures that we can take with us to the new church home, and it’s kind of a positive aspect out of a sad situation,” Jones said.
To prepare for the organ, Jones said, Holy Family recently built a 2-foot-tall platform on which the organ will sit so sound can move adequately through the building, which is bigger than St. Mary’s.
On Tuesday morning Wallace, his employees, and the volunteers hoisted from St. Mary’s loft the organ’s 350-pound wind box, a sort of distribution box for the pipes, and the nearly 500-pound bellows, which pumps air into the organ’s wind reservoir. They used a crane to move the heavy pieces, applauding when the final piece came down safely.
“This is amazing,” said Barbara Nichols of Orono, who attended St. Mary’s for 12 years and helped carry pipes Monday. “It’s wonderful they thought it was important enough that this piece be saved.”
Wallace said his company typically does about two organ moves a year, but by the end of this month will have done three in a matter of weeks. The company was recently in Belgium to reassemble an organ that was originally in a church in Westbrook. Wallace will have another job next week moving an organ built in the Gorham shop to Perry.
An increase in parishes combining, urban renewal or a trend of churches giving up old buildings for newer, energy-efficient spaces have factored into some of the organ moves.
Wallace declined to say how much a move costs, but said the bill likely won’t be more than $25,000 — significantly less than the price of a new organ, which can be more than $250,000.
The St. Mary’s organ is in good shape and should last at least another 75 to 100 years, Wallace said. Knowing that, he added, Holy Family can start a fund now for a new organ in the future.
“A lot of churches are building an annuity,” Wallace said. “We try to encourage churches, if they can do it, to put away 1 percent of the replacement costs each year. By the time the 100 years is up, you should have way more than you need.”
As volunteers continued to bring pieces of the organ out to the moving truck, Jones asked the group whether anyone would be able to help unload that afternoon at Holy Family.
Alan Cust, who attends the Old Town church, spoke up after a few seconds.
“My wife told me, [work] to the end,” Cust said, eliciting laughter from onlookers.