GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — There are few pipe organs in the world that have a nickname, a feminine pronoun and a Facebook fan page.
The Hazel Wright organ — just “Hazel,” to her admirers — was removed piece by piece in 2013 from Christ Cathedral’s shimmering sanctuary in Southern California’s Orange County, and shipped to Italy for repair. At the time, the fifth-largest pipe organ in the world was suffering from an infestation of bugs. Its pipes were melted, its trumpets corroded.
Nearly a decade and $3 million later, Hazel is back in the fully remodeled sanctuary, and heavenly chords from her pipes once again ring out in the vaulted nave of the iconic church.
“It was amazing to see people’s reactions to this powerful instrument,” said David La’O Ball, a Juilliard-trained organist and head of music ministry at Christ Cathedral, where Hazel was played for the public for the first time this month during a Mass on World Marriage Day. “Their eyes widened, and they were turning their heads from side to side to see where these sounds were coming from. You can really feel its visceral power with every note.”
The organ “is huge, but also very intimate,” Ball said.
Named for its original benefactor, the Hazel Wright organ was heard by millions worldwide during the heyday of what was then known as the Crystal Cathedral, founded by the televangelist, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who hosted the weekly Christian TV program, “Hour of Power.” The Garden Grove church is a local landmark and tourist attraction, with its majestic spire visible from some of the freeways that crisscross the county.
After Crystal Cathedral Ministries filed for bankruptcy, the organ was acquired along with the building in 2011 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which later launched a $72 million renovation of the sanctuary that was completed in 2019.
Resuscitating the organ was a top priority, regardless of cost, said the Very Rev. Christopher Smith, rector of Christ Cathedral. While $3 million may seem like a hefty price, he said it would cost five times that or more for a brand-new organ of comparable scope.
“It is an iconic instrument with a tremendous history and heritage,” Smith said. “It also represents an ancient craft, and we felt bringing it to the 21st century is significant. To me the pipe organ is just like our church where so many diverse people come together in harmony, just as so many diverse sounds in an organ converge to make this beautiful music.”
The organ was crafted in the late 1970s under the supervision of master organist Virgil Fox and dedicated in 1982. The Fratelli Ruffatti — or Ruffatti brothers — a multigenerational company of specialists in Padua, Italy, grafted an Aeolian-Skinner organ purchased from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall with one made by Fratelli Ruffatti in 1977, to create the Hazel Wright organ.
Its rehabilitation has been arduous.
It went back to the Ruffattis’ Padua factory in 2013 when it was time for the repairs. After extensive work, the pieces were shipped back to Orange County where they sat in a temperature-controlled storage facility for four years as the cathedral was renovated. Then in late 2019, Piero Ruffatti, who originally built Hazel, returned for the reinstallation.
But that was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, which early on hit Italy as hard as any other country. Ruffatti paused work on the project and took the last flight out of Los Angeles on March 17, 2020, to return home. He finally returned in November 2021 after travel restrictions eased and completed the job in late January.
“It’s been an amazing experience building this organ not once but twice,” Ruffatti said, speaking from Italy. “I’ve never done anything like this before.”
The organ originally featured 270 ranks, or sets of pipes, ranging in length from 4 inches to 32 feet; five keyboards; and the largest draw-knob console in the world to control the sound.
In its current iteration, it has some 17,000 pipes in 293 ranks and, according to Ball, is the largest pipe organ in a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere.
Ruffatti said that due to the remodel of the sanctuary, the acoustical environment for the organ is better than ever.
“It helps blend the sound together, and there is more reverberation than before,” Ruffatti said. “This organ is capable of producing so many different sounds. It could take several months even for the most accomplished organist to understand all the possibilities.”
Frederick Swann, who played the organ almost every Sunday at the Crystal Cathedral from 1982 to 1998, served as a consultant on the project and agreed that it sounds better in the renovated building.
Swann, 90, reminisced about one of his most memorable experiences — playing the organ with a tiger cub sitting on the console, one of the live animals featured in the Crystal Cathedral’s famed “Glory of Christmas” pageant. He’s delighted to see Hazel alive and well.
“This organ is special. Because of its size, it has so much more color and range than an ordinary church organ. It can go from a whisper to an, ‘Oh my gosh!’” Swann said. “This is one of the most known instruments around the world, and I’m relieved and thrilled to see it back in action.”
But fine-tuning the delicate instrument remains an ongoing process that won’t be done for a few more months, said Kevin Cartwright, president of Los Angeles-based Rosales Organ Builders, which has been contracted to maintain the instrument at a cost to the diocese of about $75,000 a year. That requires him to scale ladders several stories high.
“The organ must be tuned for the building,” Cartwright said. “Each pipe must be individually tuned.”
Hazel has had her own Facebook page since 2009: The Hazel Wright Organ Society, which now has a little over 2,400 members.
“To be an inanimate object and have that type of following is amazing, particularly for an archaic instrument like the pipe organ,” said Trisha Longo of Dickson City, Pennsylvania, one of the page’s founders and an ardent fan. “It holds a mystical appeal.”
Another founder, Matt Morrison, a California school teacher and organist who sang in the “Hour of Power” choir as a teenager, said that “worshipping God is timeless, and the music of the church transcends millennia.”
“Hazel can be used for liturgy, just as she can accompany a rock band. The organ is so versatile,” Morrison said. “Really, it’s bigger than any one genre of music.”