Pipe organ, renovation part of Belmond parish’s revitalization effort

By Dan Russo

Witness Editor

BELMOND — A small town parish in the archdiocese is betting on a bright future and its members plan to usher in their church’s 50th anniversary on a high note.

St. Francis Xavier Parish in Belmond, part of the Holy Family Cluster that also includes the parishes of St. John in Clarion and Sacred Heart in Eagle Grove, recently completed renovations to the church that included the installation of a new concrete floor. This surface, which is much better acoustically then the original carpet, is now complimenting a newly purchased pipe organ that was installed earlier this year when public Masses were suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. Leaders of the parish believe the instrument, which replaced an electric organ, has greatly enhanced worship in the church.

“The other organ was having problems that we could not fix,” explained Father Jerry Blake, the parish’s pastor. “This organ was designed for a church this size. I believe good music really lifts our spirit to help us experience a little bit of heaven here on earth.”

The improvements are part of an overall effort to revitalize the Catholic faith in the cluster, which like many rural areas around the nation, has lost population in recent decades. Father Blake believes the emergence of remote jobs and other work from home strategies and people’s desire to live in tight-knit communities like the ones he serves will be appealing to many moving forward. The families in his parishes are ready to welcome and to evangelize newcomers. St. Francis Xavier’s renovation project is tangible proof of that.

(Left to right): Donna VerHelst, Father Jerry Blake and Jim Mendralla pose with the pipe organ in St. Francis Xavier Church. The parish in Belmond recently purchased the instrument. (Contributed photo)

“We are looking toward the future,” said the priest. “We’re hoping to attract families, particularly young families.”

The centerpiece of the renovation — the custom organ containing 350 pipes — came to the parish in a very unusual way.

Jim Mendralla, liturgy and music director at the Cathedral of St. Raphael in Dubuque, had a personal instrument for sale, which, until recently, had no home. When Mendralla was serving at a parish in the Archdiocese of Chicago in the late 1990s, he designed the organ that now graces the church in Belmond. Completed in 2000 by a Michigan-based manufacturer, the musician enjoyed the instrument for years until 2008.

“I loved it,” reflected Mendralla. “It was my practice instrument.”

When Mendralla took his current position in Iowa, he had to leave his beloved organ behind. For many years, it was stored at the manufacturer’s facility in Michigan. Originally, Mendralla had created the organ with the intention that it could be used in a church someday. For a long time, he looked for an appropriate place for it.

Jim McVey, a native of the Belmond area whose mother had served in music ministry at St. Francis Xavier, connected with Mendralla several years ago. While teaching at a Catholic high school in California, McVey had been on the hunt for a pipe organ for the chapel there. A deal with Mendralla didn’t pan out, but the two musicians kept in touch.

In 2016, McVey retired from teaching and, in 2018, moved back to Belmond. It was then that he became involved in the parish’s renovation project. Parish members worked together to come up with the plans. McVey strongly supported the concrete floor design, which looks like tile, and advocated for buying a new instrument. One of the advantages of the new floor for musicians and singers is that concrete projects sound, unlike carpet, which absorbs it, according to McVey. Parish members spent years fundraising and preparing. Then came the pandemic.

“When COVID hit in March, (Father Blake) decided it was time to move on the renovation,” recalled McVey.

The first public Mass after the renovation took place in July. Although there could be no singing at that point, parishioners got a chance to publicly hear the sound of the new organ.

“It is a world of difference that took some convincing of people,” said McVey.

St. Francis Xavier Church was originally built in 1971 after a tornado. The parish hopes to celebrate the half-century since its construction with a Mass and other festivities in 2021. Music and singing will hopefully play a large part in those events.

“The role of music is integral (to our faith),” said McVey

It was a long-standing dream of Mendralla’s to have a personal organ for his residence. He spent many hours designing the instrument and worked hard to afford it. Now that the pipe organ has found a permanent home and will be used to glorify the Lord, the music director is very happy.

“The organ sits in the space like it’s meant to be,” said Mendralla. “God is a little slow, but he’s right on time. It’s totally right. I just believe it. I feel like I gave birth and now I gave (the organ) up for adoption.”

Cover image: Jim Mendralla, liturgy and music director at the Cathedral of St. Raphael, reads music while sitting at the pipe organ he designed, which was recently installed at St. Francis Xavier Church in Belmond. (Contributed photo)