Westphalia: Organist mourns loss of historic church, unique pipe organ

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WESTPHALIA, Texas (KWTX) A woman who played the century-old wooden pipe organ for a half century at the 125-year-old Church of the Visitation in Westphalia, which was consumed by fire Monday, is mourning the loss of both the landmark building, and the unique instrument she knew so well.

(Photo by: Hidden Places YouTube channel)

"It's dear to my heart. That was the first thing I thought when I heard that [the church] was on fire, I thought ‘oh we're going to lose our organ.’" Doris Voltin of Westphalia said.

The congregation was in the midst of planning for the celebration of the 125th anniversary of completion of the church building when the fire broke out Monday morning.

Firefighters from across the area responded to the church at 144 County Road 3000.

Flames overtook the sanctuary, and smoke from the fire could be seen from five miles away.

Early estimates place damages at $3 million to $4 million, a source said, but the organ was irreplaceable.

Voltin began playing when she was just 10.

“I was so little and short I couldn't reach the foot pedals,” she remembers.

Voltin played it for virtually every Mass, wedding and funeral at the church for 50 years.

“I probably played for 250 funerals,” she said.

"A lot of times my husband had to take care of the youngsters while I was upstairs playing." Voltin said.

The Organ Historical Society (OHS) lists the Westphalia organ in its Pipe Organ Database, but the listing includes scant details about the instrument.

“I remember being in the church years ago,” recalled Dr. Joyce G. Jones, now retired Baylor School of Music professor of organ.

One of the things unique about that instrument was “the pipe organ still had a means of having another person pump it,” rather than the organist having to do so with foot pedals, which freed up the organist to be able to use deep base organ pedals while playing.

The Church of the Visitation’s website details some history of the organ, which was “donated by Mrs. Theresia Bockholt,” the history says.

The very large pipe organ was built by Kilgen and Son, Inc., of St. Louis, Missouri, in 1914, the church history says.

“The choir loft was enlarged and the organ was installed in March of 1921,” then “refurbished in 1979 and (was) played each Sunday as well as on special occasions,” the history says.

The nationwide organ data base is designed to collect details about historic organs around the country, but the entry regarding the Westphalia instrument says only, “The state of this organ is unknown to the database (because it is) undocumented or unreported.”

The OHS database says: “The last update we received about this organ was on the transfer of data from the OHS PC Database, October 30, 2004.”

The OHS history is not as clear on how the organ got to Westphalia: “perhaps Kilgen moved one of their own instruments, or that of another builder, here at that date,” the OHS database says.

“I always wanted the Central Texas American Guild of Organists to visit there for a meeting but that never happened,” Dr. Jones said.

Regardless, parishioners in Westphalia and the experts at OHS say the loss is tragic because the old pipe organ was unique and can never be replaced.