Mr. Smiley and the Organ

Thursday, March 19, 2015 2 Permalink 0

From one gothic to another

The small-town Masonic Lodge in Upstate New York had dwindled to barely a quorum of its membership. The last of the line, in their 70s and 80s and facing extinction, had voted to disband the Temple, and to sell its furnishings to those who could better use them.

One of the items for sale was the pipe organ commissioned back in the heyday of the Lodge, an instrument decorated in the earthy colors of the Ruskin-Gothic era, a hybrid-Victorian piece, of rich wood and painted ornament, which also hinted toward the Arts & Crafts movement immediately to follow. Upstate New York was the first and best at this style in America. The Masons had been ahead of the fashion curve, if only by accident of location.

But it was the pipes themselves which were more valuable to Mr. Smiley.

He found the unwieldy vintage instrument by internet, the final punctuation at the end of a long search. He boarded a plane to New York, closed the deal with the Masons and dissembled the organ, carefully wrapping each pipe, board and key himself for transport.

It filled an entire shipping container.

He then arranged for the organ to make the voyage by sea all the way to Yucatan, and then by road inland on the peninsula to the centro historico of Mérida, his adopted home. There he reassembled it piece by piece, in the choir loft of Monjas Church, another kind of Gothic temple entirely, and one which had not been graced by pipe organ music for generations.

Mr. Smiley ran an extension cord across the balcony and down the ancient hall to power the bellows, and organ music was heard ricocheting off the dome of the Monjas Church for the first time in many generations.

Iglesia de Monjas

The former convent Church of the Monjas dates from the 1590s, but, as typical of the conservative Spanish, the chapel was built in an already old-fashioned Gothic style.

Eventually the nuns went extinct, quite similarly to the Masons of Upstate New York a few centuries after them. A parish church in later times, the Iglesia de Monjas (the Church of the Nuns, in translation) was looted and vandalized repeatedly in a centuries-long series of revolts and violent revolutions.

The original organ of the church, no doubt a fragile instrument made of heavy wood and valuable metal, never stood a chance. Almost all the site’s other artifacts were lost, too. Only a fractured bronze bell and a few painted wooden relics remain inside the massive stone walls, which are today stripped clean of all ornamentation but which are still as thick and strong as shipping containers, rising to the Mirador tower on top of the chapel, from which one can overlook Mérida in all directions.

During the latest wave of prosperity in the city, the building has been better maintained, the outside buttresses painted in wine-colored stucco and the inside whitewashed as bright and clean as a new jasmine flower. The effect is striking.

A new giant modern Crucifix in the style of a Russian icon hangs in the nave. It looks strangely out of place, a piece of modern art set against an ancient castle wall.

Lost instruments, lost art

After the destructive political mayhem in Mexico, there followed a time of changing liturgical taste away from traditional music as well, so no one went to the trouble or expense of replacing the esoteric musical mammoth in the Church of the Monjas. Nowadays an electric guitar is more likely to be called for in a Catholic Mass than an organ descant, and pipe organs have been almost completely lost in the whole country, and especially in Yucatan where until recently not one example remained.

That’s when an expat influx of Americans came to bear on the history of Mérida, and a certain retired organist named Mr. Smiley recognized a need in that cavernous white hall, and began his search.


Today in the venerable bare-walled basilica of the Monjas Church, high up where a choir of wimpled virgins once sang acapella, there is a richly painted row of pipes above a box of carved foreign wood which contains all the musical power necessary to rain down thundering chords on the worshippers below.

The machine is in the style of another continent, and another age, its stops labeled in a foreign language, its earthy colors too subtle for the tropical heat. It is altogether incongruous with the luminous monastic interior of its new home, and yet now a naturalized part of the order of worship there. In this way it is a powerful counterpoint to the Russian-icon modern Christ on the other end of the church.

The building has thus run full cycle, from the time when an imported religion first presumed to colonize here and raise the convent walls from the stones of Mayan pyramids, to a day when the old church, like a defunct pyramid in the present era, is being renovated by a new wave of imported elements. The colonizer is now the colonized, and the site is again available to the native population who use the building to worship and attend school.

Music you can feel inside

Mr. Smiley has been offering organ lessons to local Mexican piano students, passing on his skills to a new set of musicians who will master the instrument he has brought there.

The results are astounding. On the day we visited, one of his students was practicing music which filled the empty church at a molecular level, almost like a solid substance. You can feel the music of a large pipe organ vibrating through your body, even deep on the inside. The notes, especially the lowest ones formed with the foot pedal keyboard, shake the air, and they shake you to the core. There is something magically physical in this transformation, an alignment of soul akin to Rinne and Weber testing, or even shock therapy.

That music filled the rest of our vacation with its complex vibrations.

With a modest grin, Mr. Smiley confided, “He still has the hard touch of a pianist. An organist can tell. But it’s progress. They are making progress.”

That would seem an understatement. I think there may be a genuine Gothic-Revival revival afoot down there, thanks to him.

I cannot be more grateful to Mr. Smiley for his story, and for sharing with us his instrument, his church’s history and its stunning views. May Monjas Church always have his organ as her song.