La Jolla church finishes installing new 4,551-piece pipe organ and readies for fall dedication concert

This portion of St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church's 4,551-pipe organ faces the congregation hall.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

La Jolla-based engineering firm MDEP Structures wins an award for the organ’s installation at St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church.


La Jolla’s St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church has a lot to celebrate. And it has just the instrument to provide the musical backdrop.

After a year, a 4,551-piece pipe organ assembled onsite has been fully installed and played for church congregants. Its dedication concert is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 1.

Furthermore, the structural engineering required to assemble the organ was recognized June 29 by the San Diego chapter of the Structural Engineers Association of California with an award for La Jolla-based engineering firm MDEP Structures.

“We are enjoying it immensely,” St. James music director Alex Benestelli said of the organ. “The congregation is really enjoying it, and [St. James artist-in-residence] Bruce Neswick and I have had some fun getting to know it, learning its sound and what it can do, and will continue to do so. We couldn’t be more thrilled with how everything turned out. It’s a joy to play.”

Though the organ is fully installed, the project is not considered complete until a third-party consultant inspects the organ and signs off on it, said Benestelli, who hopes the inspection will happen in coming weeks.

Starting in the fall, “a whole year of dedicatory events are planned,” he said. The festivities will begin with the dedication concert Oct. 1 and then a silent film screening with organ accompaniment on Halloween.

“We’re going to bring in different musicians that play different kinds of music next year,” Benestelli said. “We’re really excited.”

The church has raised more than $3.3 million of the $3.5 million needed to fully fund the project. Benestelli said he hopes the rest of the money will be raised by the end of the year.

St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church
St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church at 743 Prospect St. began installing its new organ in June 2022.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

MDEP Structures’ award for the organ’s installation “was a surprise to us,” according to MDEP owner Matt Mangano. “But when it comes to organ design, there is no rule book as to how to do it, so we had to work directly with the organ makers.

“In addition to functionality and aesthetics, we had to consider things like the impact of vibration and how to retrofit 100-year-old concrete.”

Many of the pipes are hidden behind “very ornate carpentry,” and figuring out how to do the installation without impacting existing fixtures was “not an easy project,” said Mangano, who was involved with the project since its inception.

The installation had been underway since June 2022, when crews started unloading almost all of the organ’s pipes. The smallest piece is the size of a pinkie, the largest is 32 feet long.

In September, the facade pipes facing the congregation hall were mounted, encased in wood holdings. Some are real pipes used to make music and some are decorative to round out the display.

November and December make up the “busy season” for the church, so workers did not return until early this year to deliver and install the organ console and the last pipes.

The project “was such an overwhelming experience,” Mangano said. “Beyond that, the feedback from the community has been amazing. That general excitement is what we like to see.”

“We couldn’t be more thrilled with how everything turned out. It’s a joy to play.”

— Alex Benestelli, St. James music director

The church’s first organ, built in 1930 with limited funds because of the Depression, lasted until 1970. The next one was built in 1975 but was flawed 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. Rather than repair the organ, church leaders opted for a replacement.

“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. ... The worship needs to be beautiful and well-done. It is our way to give thanks for what God has done.”

Manuel Rosales, known for the organ he designed for the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, designed the St. James organ, and Parsons Pipe Organ Builders of western New York produced it.

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