Historic Jacksonville church returns splendor to pipe organ and sanctuary

Published on November 22, 2022 at 1:58 pm

The mighty music thunders from the hundreds of pipes at the back of the historic nave of Jacksonville’s Basilica of the Immaculate Conception as parish music director James Foxwell’s hands dance over its keys and controls, his feet operating its pedals.

The sound flows from the classic organ’s copper-hued pipes that frame Jacksonville’s oldest Catholic church’s stained glass window over the choir loft, echoing grandly as people file in below for noon Mass at the 121 East Duval St. sanctuary.

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The grand organ’s basics date back to just after the church was built in 1910. Last upgraded in 1975, it needs major renovation to be funded by some of a $500,000 capital campaign, those coffers getting help with proceeds from a Pipes of Praise Christmas concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Florida Theatre.

Along with the organ rehabilitation, many other parts of the 112-year-old church need “serious” help with its capital campaign, the Rev. Blair Gaynes said.

“We are blessed in the U.S. to have donors in general who want to ensure that these beautiful churches are not only vibrant places of faith and practice for the faithful, but also will stand,” Gaynes said as he listened to Foxwell’s music on Tuesday. “A church like this will stand the test of time overall more than churches built in the last 40 or 50 years.”

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Some updates have already been done to the organ, accessible up a winding wooden staircase at the rear of the church’s ornate white interior, ringed by gold accents and praying winged angel statues. That includes a new keyboard console with access to digital recordings from pipe organs around the world that music director Foxwell can blend in with his playing. The last phase of the upgrade will be an all-new pipe system above him to “revoice” the classic organ, set to be done so he can use all of its new abilities by Christmas.

“The new one has extended capabilities,” Foxwell said. “It will feel good. The chimes are working, and I like to play those at Christmas time. I didn’t have that last year. … I can wait patiently.”

Immaculate Conception was formally established as a parish on Dec. 8, 1854. But its original wooden sanctuary was burned in 1863 by occupying Union soldiers during the Civil War. A brick church was built in 1873, but it became one of thousands of buildings destroyed in the 1901 fire. The current building was built in 1910, the first organ installed in the 1920s, Gaynes said.


The organ received its first update in 1945, as builder Eugene Binder added new electro-pneumatic wind chests, console and bellows operated with electricity, all for $2,565. Other updates were done in later years, including the 1975 installation of trumpet pipes that had been uncovered in the basement.

But 47 years later, those pipes need to be cleaned, plus upgrades to the wiring and bellows and a new keyboard console. Allen Organ Co. in Pennsylvania built the new console, already installed. And 450 of the 1,400 organ pipes, two of which will be 32 feet long, have been removed to be reconfigured in a V-shape by William H. Longmore and Associates in Lake City.

“They will reconfigure the pipes in a different way, partly to show of the window and the fact that we will be using less pipes,” Gaynes said. “A full restoration would cost a half-million dollars … so that is out of our reach.”

In a nod to the ever-changing world of music, the traditional pipe music will be augmented digitally, including recordings from the world’s greatest pipe organs that can be blended in when the organist plays the instrument. Foxwell demonstrated by letting the organ play composer Jean Joseph Mouret’s “Rondeau,” also known to millions as the theme for Masterpiece Theatre on PBS.

“You can play just the digital side; you can play just the pipe sidel; or you can combine them both,” he said. “You also have more orchestral features on the digital side. … The samples are from different cathedrals and different organs.”


Along with the $200,000 pipe organ rebuild, the church’s fundraising campaign seeks to raise $300,000 more for a variety of other projects. That includes a new downstairs chapel, repairing the choir loft stairwell due to termite damage and upgrading the white-washed sanctuary paint and carpet. The pews need renovations, while the gold-painted murals overhead will be cleaned as well.

“There’s a lot of things that are underneath the white paint with repairs to an aging church and all that,” Gaynes said. “There are cracks in the wall. If you get close to the doors to the sanctuary, you can see where there has been water damage from the past from the stained glass windows, eating away at the old plaster.”

Construction on the chapel should begin in January and be done in a few months, while the organ’s new pipes should be ready for Christmas services. The rest of the church renovations could begin next fall.

Saturday’s fundraising event is the church’s major fundraiser for its capital campaign, the pastor hoping it will help boost their total as they see what else is needed to hit their goal.

The Pipes of Praise concert features tenor Emmet Cahill of Celtic Thunder. Tickets are $33, $43 and $53 for the 7:30 p.m. Saturday event. Pianist Seamus Brett will accompany Cahill with the Bishop Kenny High School Chorus.

The pre-concert reception at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront Hotel is $250 per person, offering views of the Jacksonville Light Boat Parade on the St. Johns River.

author image Reporter, WJCT News 89.9 email Dan Scanlan is a veteran journalist with almost 40 years of experience in radio, television, and print reporting. He has worked at various stations in the Northeast and Jacksonville. Prior to joining the WJCT News team, Dan spent 34 years at The Florida Times-Union as a police and current affairs reporter.

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