La Jolla’s St. James church begins installation of ‘the organ it was always designed to have’

Volunteers help unload the pipes of St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church's new organ.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The first step in a project more than 90 years in the making was taken with the delivery of the first of two shipments of pipes to build the new organ. In all, the organ will have 4,551 pipes.


When St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church was built in La Jolla in 1929, it was designed to house a great pipe organ. But the swift onset of the Depression got in the way of the church fulfilling the mission set forth by its founders.

Until now.

The first step in a project more than 90 years in the making was taken June 5, when the first of two shipments of pipes to build a new organ was delivered. In all, the organ will have 4,551 pipes. The smallest is the size of a pinkie and the largest is 32 feet long.

“If those that built St. James had the resources, this is what they would have built,” said Alex Benestelli, the church’s director of music.

The first organ, built in 1930 with limited funds because of the Depression, lasted until 1970. The next one was built in 1975 but “had flaws” and often needed expensive repairs, Benestelli said.

In 2017, a committee was formed to decide whether to repair the organ again or replace it. A consultant was hired, and organ makers were invited to submit proposals.

“Not one of them had any interest in repairing the organ,” Benestelli said. “They saw that it wasn’t a very nice instrument and wasn’t worth saving.”

The committee went to church leadership and parishioners with the recommendation that the organ be replaced, and two companies were chosen for the project.

Organ builder Manuel Rosales, known for the organ he designed for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, designed the organ, and Parsons Pipe Organ out of western New York will complete the build.

The pews of St. James will be filled with pipes for the next few months while an elaborate new organ is being assembled.
The pews of St. James will be filled with pipes and construction equipment for the next few months while an elaborate new organ is being assembled. Services will be held outdoors.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

A $3.5 million campaign was approved in September 2019 and “we immediately got to work,” Benestelli said. Thus far, parishioners have raised about $3.3 million of that amount.

“Given we have such a strong musical tradition, the church community wanted a top-class organ,” said the Rev. Mark Hargreaves, St. James’ head pastor. “The organ leads our worship, and that is the most important thing we do as a church community. There are other things that are important, but we see ourselves as a community engaged in the worship of God. The organ is a big part of the way we worship. ... The worship needs to be beautiful and well-done. It is our way to give thanks for what God has done.”

The church has three choirs and hosts an annual concert series that brings performers from around the world.

“Here at St. James, we express our faith through the arts,” Benestelli said. “We are also here in The Village and like to open our doors to as many people as we can. We have such a vibrant arts culture that we want to be attractive to the wider La Jolla community. We can give concerts and hold events and be welcoming to the region. The organ will be a big part of that.”

Scaffolding in St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church holds the place of the church's new organ.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

Special delivery

Parsons Pipe Organ assembled the new instrument at its warehouse on the East Coast. It was tested and tuned, then disassembled and loaded onto trucks to be driven across the country to St. James.

Parishioners helped unload the pipes and stage them in the hall where the organ will be built.

“It will take the summer to get it built, then there will be several months in which Manuel Rosales will be here tuning it for the space, because it is the fine-tuning that makes the difference between a good instrument and an outstanding instrument,” Hargreaves said. The hope is that the organ will be ready by Christmas.

While construction is underway, services will be held in the outdoor courtyard, as they were during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s thrilling to see the excitement around it,” Benestelli said. “We all just deeply believe in this project and what it means for the life of our church.”

Once it is completed, “people will be impressed by the sound, but it is going to have a visual impact as well,” Hargreaves said. “Great care has been put into how it will look in the church. … We worked hard to match the colors of the wood. Our symbol is a shell, so the shell is going to appear on the organ casing. Part of the project is enhancing the whole look of the church. St. James is getting the organ it was always designed to have.”

St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church is at 743 Prospect St. A website has been established for updates on the organ installation at ◆