The Allen digital organ has scores of different tones. It cost $70,000. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
The Allen digital organ has scores of different tones. It cost $70,000. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
On its debut, the new organ at The Grotto alternately offered sweet small music and then brought deep shudders to the soaring stone Chapel of Mary. It will lead worship for decades in one of Oregon’s busiest churches.

The digital Allen organ was a bargain at $70,000. But Chris Blanchard, executive director of the Northeast Portland Catholic sanctuary, still needs about $35,000 to pay it off.

The instrument is the musical denouement of a renovation of the chapel, which was built in 1955 and welcomes thousands of visitors each year. During Advent and Christmas, the house of worship is home to a busy music festival that brings choirs from all over the region to sing. The organ is ready to accompany them, plus support the frequent Masses at The Grotto.

The Grotto held a concert Oct. 23 to generate interest in the instrument. Blanchard plainly said that money is needed, but was glad that the debut could gather a community.

Servite Father Vidal Martinez, rector of The Grotto, blessed the organ with holy water. The prayers used the psalm phrase “sing a new song.”

Organist for the debut was Jonas Nordwall, who has played at Portland’s First United Methodist Church since 1971 and was organist for the Oregon Symphony. Nordwall said he brings out of town visitors to The Grotto and chose music out of love and respect for the place and its message. Songs included Padre Antonio Soler’s “The Emperor’s Fanfare,” “God of Might and Justice” by Michael Joncas, Cèsar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” When playing Alexander Russell’s “The Bells of St. Anne de Beaupré,” Nordwall showed that the organ could sound like a ringing church bell. In other songs, it mimicked an angelic choir.

“The instrument has a wide variety of tones,” Nordwall said after the concert, adding that the organ positions the Chapel of Mary, which has lively acoustics, as a year-round hub of musical arts.

All the sounds that emerged were clear and strong. Digital organs have come a long way in sounding like old-fashioned pipe organs, which require a lot more expensive maintenance.

The organ sits not in the choir loft, but to the right of the sanctuary under a statue of St. Joseph. Newly cleaned murals of Jesus, Mary and saints glowed above it.

“Wonderful,” longtime Grotto board member John Puttman said after the concert.

Raquel Naval, who leads music for Filipino Masses at The Grotto, now wants her 15-year-old son to learn organ as well as piano.

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