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Column: Family gives pipe organ new home in church

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The congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church White Creek will be hearing some new sounds from an old organ Sunday.

Actually, the old organ is new as far as the St. John’s congregation goes. It dates to 1923, but it’s never been in Bartholomew County. The pipe organ is a gift to the church.

On the surface there’s really nothing unusual about the organ or the fact that it was donated to a church. It happens quite often, in great part because music is such an integral part of many congregations. In this instance, however, there is a beautiful story behind the gift. In a sense, it’s a gift from the beyond.

It begins with a man named James Blomenberg. James, a Bartholomew County native, was born with music in his veins. Both his parents, Gilbert and Marie Blomenberg, were musicians, and his maternal grandfather, T.J. Koch, was heralded throughout his life for his musical skills and his ability to teach the art to others.

James always had an interest in music but somehow or other never pursued that interest.

“James did have a strong appreciation gene,” recalled his wife, Janeen. “Bach was his favorite composer, and the pipe organ was his favorite instrument.”

He also had a strong appreciation for the legacies of his parents and grandfather. He spent a good part of the past two decades unearthing and promoting the contributions of Koch, who not only was a lifelong teacher of music in local Lutheran schools but an esteemed artist himself.

James found hundreds of musical compositions by his grandfather. Many of those scores were performed by the Concordia University (Nebraska) choir, which released a CD of the performance.

Koch’s musical skills were combined with a love for painting. Over the years James sought and in some cases unearthed works of art by his grandfather. After several years of research and collecting, the Blomenberg family published a handsome coffee table book, “Artistic Impressions: The Life and Art of T.J. Koch.”

James’ research into the life of his grandfather took up considerable time, but throughout the process he held fast to another dream — owning and being able to play his own pipe organ. Actually, he acted on his dream. In 1989, his brother, Ted, who lived in Decatur, told him about an advertisement for the auction of a pipe organ in Huntington.

“James was excited about the prospect, but he didn’t want to put too big an investment into it,” Janeen said. “He put in a real lowball bid, but apparently it wasn’t low enough. He won the bid.”

Acquiring the organ was only one step. Moving it was a much bigger hurdle. Over the next 18 months he, his son, Paul, and Ted dismantled the organ, pipe by pipe moving it to Ted’s farm.

The dream of being a performing musician took on greater form.

“Owning the organ was the impetus for putting an addition on our house,” Janeen said. “Part of the addition was to be James’ room, and it would house his pipe organ.”

The construction phase took a total of four years, but when work was completed, other realities set in. The couple’s workload increased, and their children were growing up. The goal of restoring the organ was pushed further into the future.

The dream ended in 2009 when James suffered a heart attack and died.

More than two years after his death, his dream was resurrected in a conversation Janeen had with local organ enthusiast John Sasse.

He suggested that she consider donating the organ to the St. John’s congregation.

Actually, the organ was only part of the gift. Janeen was put in touch with Ed Bruenjes, a local organist who had worked on a number of pipe organs in the past. The two went to Decatur to inspect the organ and made a rough estimate of two months for the restoration work.

“Actually it took 15 months,” Janeen said. “It was in worse shape than anticipated. The mice and raccoons who shared living space with the organ in a barn were more destructive than we imagined.”

Nevertheless, Ed and a small army of volunteers of all ages finally completed work on the restoration and placement of the organ in its new home.

It will be formally dedicated at a 1 p.m. event Sunday that is open to the public. John Mathews of Grace Lutheran Church will play the organ, and fittingly most of his selections will be by T.J. Koch.

I think Janeen can be excused if she closes her eye and imagines someone else playing the works. In her mind the organist would likely be her husband, James.

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