David and His Harp: An historic Canadian organ case in Chicago

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ln 1982 Holy Family Roman Catholic Church, the second oldest church in Chicago, had fallen on hard times, so much so that in the previous autumn the Chicago Province of the Society of Jesus which owns the church decided to tear down the old structure and to replace it with a new, smaller and cheaper one.

Its congregation, mainly Black and Hispanic, was devastated. Dwindling in number and poor, they had neither the financial resources nor the clout to successfully oppose demolition plans. They resorted to prayer vigils. At the eleventh hour, in March 1982, an ecumenical group of Chicago businessmen pledged necessary funds to save the church.

Holy Family, or the Church on the Prairie as it was called, was built in 1857 by Irish immigrants in what was then a largely undeveloped area of the city. Like the older St. Patrick's (1854), also Roman Catholic, it survived the Great Conflagration of 1871. When it was dedicated in 1860, Holy Family, designed in the Gothic revival style by architects Dellenberg & Zucker (or Dillenberg, -burg, & Zucher), and John van Osdel, was one of the largest churches in the United States. Within thirty years the parish, by then numbering 25,000 souls, had become the largest English-speaking parish in the country. Its college would grow into Loyola University of Chicago.

Succeeding waves of immigrant parishioners left their mark on the interior decoration of the church. The statue of St. Patrick recalls the original founders. That of one-time parishioner St. Frances Xavier Cabrini represents the Italians who followed, while paintings of the Black Risen Christ (by Father James Hasse, the present superior) and of Our Lady of Guadalupe reflect today's population.

Art abounds in Holy Family. Most noteworthy is the main altar, dedicated in 1865, with ifs 52-foot-high retable of hand carved walnut. It features a copy of a Murillo painting, and some thirteen statues. All carvings on the retable, and the confessionals, are the work of Anthony Buscher, whose nephew Sebastian carved the bas-relief of the Last Supper on the altar front. The highly ornate communion rail (1866) containing seventeen inlaid panels was executed by wood sculptor Louis E. Wisner. The stained glass windows created in 1907 by the Von Gerichten Art Glass Co. of Columbus, Ohio, represent scenes from the lives of Jesuit saints, as well as the Annunciation and the Nativity.

With such artistic holdings, and memories, it is no wonder that the current congregation desired so greatly to save the church. But there is yet another element to the decor and furnishings of this historic building that justified the parishioners' wishes. It is the organ façade on the second balcony, belonging to the great pipe organ built by Montrealer Louis Mitchell.

Contracted to Mitchell in late 1867 or early 1868, the entire instrument had cost in the neighbourhood of $30,000.1 Structural weaknesses in the balcony delayed installation, and the inauguration finally took place at a special concert on October 20, 1870. Long awaited, this King of Instruments created a sensation among musicians, members of the clergy and the general public. The elaborately carved walnut organ front was apparently modelled after an organ in one of the English cathedral towns and was described as being in the style of 13th century transition Gothic.

The instrument was equipped with three manuals, some sixty-three sounding stops and three thousand nine hundred and eighty-four pipes.2 A great number of the pipes were imported from Maison Voignier, in Paris, while all wooden pipes, voicing and work were done by Mitchell in his Montréal atelier. Only some of the metal pipes were American, being made by L.U. Stuart of New York.

The organ was by far the largest in Chicago (St. James' church would take second place in 1871 with an organ boasting of only thirty-eight stops). In volume alone, Holy Family' s was said to rank no less than third in the country behind the Walcker organ at the Boston Music Hall and the Hook organ in Plymouth Church, Brooklyn.

Despite his family name, Louis Mitchell (1822 -1902) was a French Canadian. In his youth he had studied music at Collège de Ste-Thérèse, north of Montréal, as had another famous organ builder, his compatriot Joseph Casavant (1807-1874).

Around 1855 Mitchell apprenticed under Samuel Russel Warren (1809-1882) who had arrived in Montréal from Bosto.circa 1836, after having been the apprentice of the organ maker Thomas Appleton. Warren is credited with having established professional norms for pipe organ building in Canada, while his younger brother, Thomas D., was to become Appleton's associate.

In 1860, Mitchell set up shop with a colleague from Samuel Warren's named Forté, working with him until 1865. His workshop quickly gained in popularity and by 1870 he had built about forty-five instruments, among which were the ones for Belœil, the church of St-Joseph in Ottawa and the convent of Pied-du-Courant (1861), for Ste-Scholastique, Lanoraie. and for Hôtel-Dieu hospital in Montréal (1862). Two years later Mitchell enjoyed a triumph in Québec City by rebuilding the cathedral's old Elliot organ, and then produced organs for Ste-Elisabeth church in Joliette (1865), for the Seminary and the parish of St-Grégoire in Nicolet (1867), and for the church of L'Acadie (1869). His 1870 instrument for Lévis was judged by Gérard Morisset to be of "great technical perfection."3 Mitchell's reputation spread beyond the borders of the province of Québec, into Prince Edward Island, Ontario, the Western provinces (in 1875 he built a "magnificent" organ for St-Boniface Cathedral, Manitoba),4 and New England. In late 1874 or early 1875, Mitchell hired an experienced foreman from Europe, further expanding operations to include the fabrication of metal pipes and the very metal used in this process, thereby no longer having to rely on imported parts.

Louis Mitchell's success at Holy Family church in Chicago owed much to another Montrealer, sculptor Charles-Olivier Dauphin, who carved the statues on the organ front.5 The "figures nearly life-like in size, and in artistic point of view, co-relative with the statues devised or copied by the genius of Michael Angelo,"6 were conceived on a musical theme. Originally gilded, they are now painted white. They represent King David of Israel with his harp, prophetess Deborah and St. Cecilia, two reclining allegorical figures, and a chorus of twenty-two angels (of the Apocalypse?) each playing a musical instrument.

Although Dauphin's obituary tells of thirty-two statues, only twenty-seven still occupy their assigned posts. Some early writers mentioned a statue of Abner, David's general, with his sword but there is no proof that it ever existed. The illustration of the organ front published b.L'Opinion publique in December 1870 shows twenty-four angels, two more than now exist. That two angels were taken down over the years is confirmed by a photograph of the organ case which appeared in Mulkerins' 1923 book on the parish of Holy Family.7 In any event, Abner and the two angels would only raise the number of statues to thirty. One explanation of the discrepancy might be that the extra sculptures would refer to the larger ornaments on the case.

Dauphin is an important, though relatively unknown, representative of the Montréal school of Québec's […] sculptors. Born in 1807, he [apprenticed under sculptor Pierre-Urbain Brien dit Desrochers (1781-1860)]. From 1848 to his death in 1874, Dauphin operated a shop on St-Denis Street in Montréal specializing in all types of wood carving. During his long and honourable career (Napoléon Bourassa recognized in his work the potential of some of the early Italian Renaissance masters), Dauphin produced work for private homes in Montréal, and for churches in the provinces of Québec and Manitoba, and in American parishes along Québec's border. Around 1849 he took on as an apprentice Augustin Buteau (c. 1831-1871) who remained in his service as somewhat of an associate. Other apprentices included sculptors Arthur Vincent (1852-?), from 1865 to 1870 (he thus would have most probably collaborated on the Chicago statuary), and Joseph-Olindo Gratton (1855-1941), accepted 1873-74, who was to carve the thirteen colossal statues of apostles and saints that grace the façade of Montréal's Roman Catholic cathedral.

Various considerations — projects carried out by Dauphin's atelier in the 1860s for St-Jacques Roman Catholic church, Montréal, and the possibility we have entertained that "missing" sculptures at Holy Family might refer to large ornaments — lead us to surmise that Dauphin would have sculpted all ornamentation (statues and ornaments) for the Mitchell organ case in Chicago. These projects at St-Jacques, which document instances of collaboration between craftsmen, also suggest that the cabinetmaker involved in Chicago might very well be George(s?) Ducharme. A joiner and a carpenter, Ducharme was the president of th.Société canadienne des charpentiers et menuisiers (1865-66) while, strangely enough, holding jobs as caretaker (bedeau) of St-Jacques church (1867) and guardian of the parish library and boys' school (1870 and 1871). Montréal's St-Jacques church stood on the north-east corner of St-Denis and Ste-Catherine streets. Gutted by fire in 1933 and rebuilt, it was sold forty years later to the University of Québec. University authorities then demolished all but the main façade and the façade of the southern transept in order to make way for a new campus.

Until the fire, one of the treasures of St-Jacques had been its Louis Mitchell organ, inaugurated 7 April 1868. It cost $4,800 without the case designed by Victor Bourgeau (1809-1888), a famous Montréal architect.8 Though a much smaller instrument, its façade closely anticipated that of the Chicago organ, both cases being composed of three towers with intermediary wings, and statuary. At first the Montréal case was polychrome but it was then painted white and gold. Statues (of angels, as in Chicago?), and ornamental sculpture adorning it, were ordered at a cost of $490, from Dauphin and "Butau."9 The cabinetmaker employed was Ducharme, who had constructed the supporting balcony.

In 1863, using plans traced by Victor Bourgeau, Ducharme and the younger Bourgeau had executed a side altar for St-Jacques dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The statue of Mary came from a Montréal statuary named Catelli but it had been painted by Dauphin. The Ducharme-Dauphin (Buteau) collaboration resumed around 1867 when Ducharme was asked to build the pulpit for St-Jacques, following the modified plan of a Belgian pulpit. Statues of prophets, apostles and allegorical figures, and ornamental sculpture lavished upon the Montréal pulpit were by Dauphin and his "confrère d'atelier," presumably Buteau.10 On the exterior of the speaker's platform was the seated figure of King David, appearing much as he would in Chicago, although in repose, and holding a smaller harp.

George Ducharme later pursued a career as a cabinet-maker, or fine woodworker, in close association with Victor Bourgeau. From 1874 to 1886, in fact, he built the high altar, retable, choir stalls and pulpit designed by Bourgeau for Notre-Dame church in Montréal and, in addition, made the side altars dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and to St. James, the gallery railings, and pews.

Ducharme may even have fabricated the case of the old organ of Notre-Dame (it was replaced by a Casavant in 1890). Purchased around 1857 from Samuel Warren, the instrument did not yet have its front in [1864] but did ten years later when it was repainted, full restoration of the instrument having been entrusted to Louis Mitchell. And in 1883 Ducharme advertised i.La Minerve seeking to execute altars, pulpits an.organ cases (our italics).

Given the facts surrounding projects completed at St-Jacques, given the working relationship established between Mitchell, Ducharme and Dauphin, and given Ducharme's avowed interest in building organ cases, our claims concerning ornamental work at Holy Family and the identity of the cabinetmaker responsible for the overall case might well one day be substantiated.

Today, at Holy Family in Chicago, about all that is left of Louis Mitchell's great organ is the front with its façade pipes and statues. Rebuilt in 1891, once more in 1923, and again in 1950, the restored instrument was sold in 1971 to St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Zurich, Illinois. However, the front continues to draw admiration despite its poor location in the church.

At the time of its inauguration in Chicago.L'Opinion publique had written: "It is a success, a triumph of which all French-Canadians must be proud. ...Every detail is perfect, and this organ, though made for a foreign country, is no less a veritable national monument. ..."11 Although the case still stands as a likely example of Mitchell's capabilities in organ front design (unless it too was designed by Victor Bourgeau), one would now have to go elsewhere to hear an original Mitchell pipe organ, if indeed such an instrument still exists. Whether or not the façade in Chicago is in fact the work of Ducharme, many examples of his workmanship still exist, notably almost everything he built for Notre-Dame church, Montréal. But certainly only at Holy Family in Chicago is there such an important number of statues by Dauphin. Sadly enough, of Dauphin's considerable output only a handful of pieces are extant, or have been located in Canada. Were it only for thi.reason, Holy Family would remain as a "monument," better yet as a treasure house of special significance to the artistic heritage of Canada.

Bernard Mulaire […] would appreciate hearing from members of the Dauphin family. [He] gratefully acknowledges personal communications and documentation received from Mr. Tim Barton of the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks, and Father George A. Lane, S.J., of Loyola University Press, both of Chicago.


  1. Reports of the cost of the instrument vary between twenty and forty thousand dollars. See: Québec, Inventaire des biens culturels du Québec (fonds Gérard-Morisset): Artistes et Artisans, documentation : Mitchell, Louis. Facteur d'orgues; "Inauguration des orgues de St. Jacques," Le Nouveau Monde, Montréal, 8 avril 1868, p. 2; and, "The Largest Organ in the United States," Republican, October 21, 1870.
  2. The precise number of stops and pipes is a matter of conjecture. See: Michael D. Friesen, "The History of the Louis Mitchell and Other Great Organs at Holy Family," The Stop't Diapason, Newsletter of the Organ Historical Society's Chicago-Midwest Chapter, III (June 1982), p. 19.
  3. Gérard Morisset, Coup d'œil sur les arts en Nouvelle France, s.é., Québec, 1941, p. 117.
  4. Québec, IBCQ (f.G-M.): Artistes et Artisans, documentation : Mitchell, Louis. Facteur d'orgues.
  5. "Rapports et Reproductions," La Minerve, Montréal, 13 janvier 1874, p. 2 (the deceased is erroneously identified as Jos. Charles Dauphin, who was one of his sons).
  6. "The Largest Organ in the United States," loc. cit.
  7. Thomas M. Mulkerins, S.J., Holy Family Parish, Chicago, Priests and People, Universal Press, Chicago, 1923, p. 99. In a letter to the author dated November 21, 1983, Mr. Tim Barton, of the Commission on Chicago Historical and Architectural Landmarks, wrote: ". ..I seem to remember one of the priests at Holy Family telling me that 2 statues were removed and sold some time during the 1960s."
  8. Though Olivier Maurault first attributed the St-Jacques organ case to Napoléon Bourassa (cf. Saint-Jacques de Montréal, l'Église — la paroisse, s.é., Montréal, 1923, p. 69), he later opted in favour of Victor Bourgeau. See Marges d'histoire : Montréal, Librairie d'Action canadienne-française Ltée, (Montréal), 1929, p. 238.
  9. Montréal, Archives du Séminaire de Saint-Sulpice: Église St Jacques, comptes avec les Employés, créanciers &c. 1868-1894, p. 23.
  10. Napoléon Bourassa, "Causerie artistique," Revue canadienne, Montréal, IV (décembre 1867), p. 933.
  11. "M. Louis Mitchell," L'Opinion publique, Montréal, 1 décembre 1870, p. 378.


Holy Family Church, art holdings, organ, and related subjects

  • "Amusements. The Organ Concert," Chicago Times, October 21, 1870; Michael D. Friesen, "The History of the Louis Mitchell and Other Great Organs at Holy Family." The Stop't Diapason, III (April 1982), p. 14, and III (June 1982), p. 18-19, 20-25; "A Great Organ," (source unknown), October 21, 1870; Anne Keegan, "The Church that angels rescued," Chicago Tribune, April 24, 1982; "New Organ at St. James' Church," The Musical Independent, Chicago, January 1871, p.11.
  • Chicago's Famous Buildings, ed. Arthur Siegel, The University of Chicago Press, 1965, p. 44-45; Larry J. Homolka and J. William Rudd, Holy Family Jesuit Church, Historic American Buildings Survey, Chicago Project II, 1964, p. 1-10; George A. Lane, S.J., Chicago Churches and Synagogues, Loyola University Press, Chicago, 1981, p. 26-27; Thomas M. Mulkerins, Holy Family Parish ... , op. cit., p. 97, 307; Barbara Owen, The Organ in New England, The Sunbury Press, Raleigh, 1979, p. 190, 223, ff.

Louis Mitchell, and related subjects

  • Montréal, œuvre et Fabrique de Notre-Dame de Montréal: Registres des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 1822, p. 173; Friesen, op.cit., III (June 1982), p. 19; Gérard Morisset, Coup d'œil sur les arts en Nouvelle France, op. cit. , p. 114, 116-118; Barbara Owen, op. cit. , p. 86; Stéphane Willis, Pipes and Pedals, National Library of Canada, Ottawa; 1983, p. 7.

George(s?) Ducharme

  • Napoléon Bourassa, "Causerie artistique," Revue canadienne, IV (octobre 1867), p. 793; "George Ducharme," La Minerve, 30 novembre 1883, p. 2; Mackay's, then Lovell's, Montréal Directory, 1858-59 to 1876-77: "Alphabetical Directory," and 1865-66, p. 442; Olivier Maurault, La Paroisse, Thérien Frères Ltée, Montréal, 1957, p. 75-76, 80-81; Franklin Toker, The Church of Notre-Dame in Montréal, an Architectural History, McGill-Queen's University Press, Montréal & London, 1970, p. 93.

St-Jacques church, statuary, organ and pulpit:

  • Untitled articles, La Minerve, 4 avril 1868, p. 2, and 14 avril 1868, p. 1; Bourassa, loc. cit. , IV (décembre 1867), p. 932, 937; "L'église St-Jacques," La Minerve, 2 mai 1863, p. 2; "Inauguration des orgues de St. Jacques," Le Nouveau Monde, 8 avril 1868, loc. cit.; Les Églises, Architecture religieuse I, Communauté urbaine de Montréal, 1981, p. 230.

© Canadian Collector / Bernard Mulaire, 1984

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