Speed Memorial Church
Sellersburg, Indiana

Click on any image above for an enlarged full size photograph

THE CHURCH IS ON FIRE! By Carol M. Johnson

(Published in The Organ Portfolio and The Organist 1/90 and 2/90 by the Lorenz Corporation)

Church buildings, especially old church buildings, can be ticking fire bombs, capable of bursting into flame at any moment. Old wiring, overloaded and inadequate outlets, paper squirreled all over, candles, furnace rooms used as extra storage rooms, sneaky smokers, days when no one is in the building, all contribute to my lifetime fear of a fire occurring in the church. As a public building used by many people, some with less concern for the building than others, the church is very vulnerable to acts of carelessness.

For years I have preached to anyone who would listen, of the necessity of being fire-safety conscious at our church. Because of my "pyro-paranoia" I have been known to turn my car around a block from the church and return just to check if I had turned off the organ, the lights, the amplifier, the fans, the heat, or locked the door. I've done the same thing at home to check on my curling iron.

Over the years there have been small fires of little significance at our church, due in part to sheer luck. I have seen a bride's veil touch an aisle candle and ignite, saved only by an alert relative seated nearby. Children have entered the church and taken lit candles, dribbling wax over church items, and blackened walls and ceilings with sooty candle stubs. Communion linens, carelessly stored too close to a closet light bulb, have smoldered and burned near boxes of used and unused candles, fortunately discovered by the minister, who just happened to drop in. Secret smokers have quickly doused cigarettes in restroom waste cans during wedding receptions.

The potential for disaster is present at every candlelighting service we hold at midnight Christmas Eve. Looking out from the organ over a candlelit sanctuary is a beautiful sight to behold, but it takes every ounce of concentration on my part to keep from playing the accompanying hymn faster and faster to quickly reach the time when the flame is lowered and extinguished.

Old choir music seems to hold a sacred place in some peoples hearts, and they resist the idea of discarding ancient anthems that will never be used again and serve only as tinder-box material.

Despite all of the efforts of our congregation to maintain a church that was fire-hazard free, the nightmare of a church fire came true last spring. A careless roofing contractor left an area smoldering, and the roof of the Sunday School wing ignited less than an hour after they had finished the day's work. What had initially appeared to be slight fire turned into a fire of major proportions and the Sunday School wing and adjoining areas were destroyed.

Thousands of gallons of water from the firefighters doused the flames, but they also poured into the pipe organ chamber and soaked the organ console, destroying it beyond repair. Quick work on the part of family and friends saved the sanctuary piano, a filing cabinet of choir music, and my case of wedding music that I had accumulated over the years. (Everyone one has his or her own priority - mine was to save the music.)

The next morning my son installed huge industrial-sized fans to dry the organ console and pipe chamber, but the damage was already done. My beloved pipe organ was a dead soldier.

The fire was on a Thursday evening but by Sunday morning we were able to have church in our new activity building, using the church pews that the community had helped remove from the smoke-filled sanctuary the night of the fire. An electronic organ had been provided by a local organ dealer, and I had my first experience at the keyboard of a musical wizard with only a few minutes of instruction last Saturday evening.

After a few weeks of playing an instrument that possibly is much smarter than I, our church received a call from a gentleman from a city one hundred miles south of our small town. He had heard of our dilemma from a friend who had seen the television coverage of our fire, and had a most astonishing offer to make to our church. Because he was moving and would no longer have the space in his new home, he was offering to donate his pipe organ to our church to replace our damaged instrument!

Being the skeptic that I sometimes am, and remembering some of the small electric organs people had already generously offered the church, I had little hope that this organ would be any better suited for our sanctuary. But feeling the need to follow any lead that might help our congregation reconstruct our sanctuary, several of us took a day off and drove to see what this generous man had to offer.

My fears were immediately allayed when we stepped into his home, which had a two-story addition to accommodate the pipes of the proffered organ plus the pipes of an authentic, perfectly restored theater organ! This was no ordinary musician!

After an afternoon spent being entertained by both organs and a player piano electronically connected to the theater organ, we drove back home in a euphoric state of mind. The organ he was offering us as a gift was the same brand (Pilcher) as we had loved and lost, considerably larger, and in near-perfect restored condition. Those wonderful tones in our old organ that I treasured would still be sounding forth in the future in our rebuilt church!

Further research of the gift organ disclosed other coincidences that took on spooky proportions. Pipe organs are assigned opus numbers when manufactured, matching console numbers with pipe numbers. Company records indicated that the pipes on the gift organ were from a church that had lost its pipe organ console in a serious flood in the Ohio valley in 1937. This church, located in the city where I was born, was the church where my grandmother was the choir director, and where my mother first played the organ in 1929 when she was 17 years old. Now the pipes of this very same organ would be place in a church where my daughter is the choir director, I am the organist, and my mother, who just recently joined our church, often substitutes for me at the organ!

There have been many wonderful incidents relating to the fire that have given me additional definitions for the word "fire" besides fear - ardor, inspiration, enthusiasm, excitement, warmth and affection. The outpouring of community love was quite evident on the night of the fire. By midnight the sanctuary had been deemed safe and firemen and people from all the other area churches formed a human chain to move as much as possible to the church's activity building two doors down the street. One fireman handed me a water-and-insulation-soaked copy of "Bless This House" which had fallen from the music cabinet when we pulled it out before the fire had progressed. The words "Bless the walls so firm and stout.bless the hearth a-blazing therewith smoke ascending like a prayer" took on a special significance as I placed it on the piano for our first worship service in our new meeting-place the Sunday before Pentecost.

I pulled out my stack of The Organist to find music for our inaugural Sunday in our gymnasium/sanctuary, and the first one I selected had an article by Lani Smith, "Exploring the Tonal Resources," which was invaluable to me that Saturday as I tried to understand and properly play the electronic organ so quickly provided to me. The next book I randomly selected (The Organist 5/82) had as the first piece "See How Great a Flame Aspires," describing our current status to a tee.

In the rubble of the fire a stack of just-released daily devotionals ("These Days") was found. In the one remaining dry copy was a series of devotions I had written. The first one was entitled "New Beginnings" and used the Scripture reference of Isaiah 43:18 - "Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happed long ago. Watch for the new things I am going to do". To which I say "amen and thank you, Lord."

Henry Pilchers Sons
Louisville, Kentucky

Pedal Swell Great

16' Bourdon
16' Lieblich Gedeckt
8' Flute Forte
8' Flute Dolce
8' Cello

Great to Pedal 8'
Great to Pedal 4'
Swell to Pedal 8'

Great to Pedal 8'
Swell to Pedal 8'

8' Viola Diapason
8' Gedeckt
8' Salicional
8' Vox Celeste
4' Flute Harmonic
8' Oboe (Reedless)
Swell to Swell 16'
Swell to Swell 4'
Swell Unison Off

8' Open Diapason
8' Melodia
8' Dulciana
8' Unda Maris
4' Flute


Swell to Great 8'
Swell to Great 16'
Swell to Great 4'

Great to Great 16'
Great to Great 4'

Great Separation

Click the play button (right facing arrow) to listen after the file begins to download.

At Calvary

performed at Speed Memorial Church
by Carol Johnson, Organist
April 14, 2008

Alternate Recordings:

"He Raised Me Up - Carol Johnson, Organist"

"Victory in Jesus - Carol Johnson, Organist"

"The Little Brown Church - David Lamb, Organist"

Return to SIAGO.org mainpage