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A musical homecoming

By Staff | Jul 17, 2009

Immanuel Lutheran Church Willow Creek, of rural Willow City, will host an organ concert by Irene Biberdorf Freitag on Sunday, July 26.

It will be a homecoming for Freitag, of Estevan, Saskatchewan, who first played the imposing instrument when she was 13 years old.

Irene was born and raised on a farm about five miles from Immanuel where her family were members. She had always been fascinated by the large organ, whose tallest pipes reached a height of nearly 16 feet.

“We had a very good organist,” Irene says. “I guess that’s why I got interested.”

That organist was Bill Niewoehner, and Irene took piano lessons from his daughter. After a few years Irene graduated to playing the church organ without knowing much about how to play it. If she didn’t do it right her uncles would tell her, she says. Fortunately, she was a fast learner.

The decision by the congregation to buy a pipe organ had been made in 1902, according to church member Kenny Klebe, but apparently it took four years to build, and the church installed it in 1906. It was made by Vogelpohl and Spaeth, organ builders from New Ulm, Minn., and as far as church members know is one of only three of its style in the United States.

It was dismantled at the factory and shipped in pieces to Willow City, then taken to the church in horse-drawn wagons. A representative from the factory traveled with the fragile organ parts and supervised a few select men in reassembling it.

The organ cost $1,000, a huge sum in those days, but a price the congregation willingly paid. “My dad said some people went without shoes to pay for that organ,” Irene said.

The organ has ‘tracker’ or mechanical action, with one pedal board and one keyboard. Eight different ranks of pipes, 488 in all, produce a special quality of sound for each of the 61 keys. Originally, the organ was pumped with a handle by young men in the congregation, but that job ended when rural electricity came to the area in 1949.

Irene’s sister-in-law, Annie Biberdorf of Willow City, remembers attending church at Immanuel as a young girl. “When we grew up we didn’t know what we had out there,” she says of the rare instrument, and of the organist, Niewoehner. He had studied music at Elmhurst College in Illinois and served Immanuel for 45 years. In addition, he farmed and taught in the parochial school operated for a number of years by the church.

Immanuel Lutheran was organized by German settlers who moved into the Willow Creek area west of Willow City starting in the mid-1880s. The first services were held in sod shanties or dugout homes of the homesteaders. A visiting pastor made the rounds every two months or so. In 1889 the settlers formed a congregation, called their first pastor and built a small chapel five miles west of Willow City. An annex was added and served as the pastor’s home. The building was later moved two miles west, to the banks of Willow Creek.

Times were hard in the early years. For at least half of the first decade the rains did not come and crops failed. But the pioneers persevered, and slowly the church community began to flourish.

The cornerstone of the present church was laid in the spring of 1897, and the building was completed by November of that year at a total cost of less than $2,500. Church services were conducted entirely in German until World War I, when some Engish was introduced. Following World War II services were in English only.

As the first Missouri Synod congregation in the area, Immanuel served as a mother church to congregations in many other towns, including Berwick, Rolla, Kramer, Gardena, Upham and Rugby.

Many improvements were made to the church over the years, but the old pipe organ was never replaced. In the late 1960s it was thoroughly cleaned and tuned, but only minor repairs have been done since, including some this past spring. According to Kenny Klebe, a repairman, the last surviving employee of the company that made the organ, came with two apprentices and fixed a few components that weren’t working correctly.

The organ needs to be completely restored, the repairman said, but church members believe the expense is prohibitive. “It would cost $5,000 to bring it up to where it should be,” said Marlene Erdman.

The repairman expressed surprise the organ works as well as it does and speculated it might be because the church isn’t heated in the winter, except on Sundays, so the parts haven’t dried out, Kenny Klebe said.

Irene played the beautiful old instrument from the eighth grade through her high school years. When it came time for her to go to college, her father told her he could pay for only two and one-half years, and after that she would have to take a teaching job. She attended Concordia College at Seward, Neb., and proved to be such a good organ student that one of her instructors wrote to her father and said if she could go four years, she could have a job teaching at the college.

Her father agreed, and Irene’s career was launched. She taught for several years and later received a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota with a major in music history and literature and a minor in organ. She did additional organ studies, including a number of months in Switzerland with one of Europe’s top organists. After serving as an organ instructor at several colleges, Irene returned to North Dakota and worked in Rugby, taking a break from teaching. She met and married Leo Freitag, a Canadian, and moved to Saskachewan, where she continued to be involved with music. According to Annie, Irene was approached last winter by church member Jim Lehmann, who told her repairs would be made to the organ and suggested she might want to give a recital. She liked the idea but wanted to involve other members of the Biberdorf family, a very musical clan.

So the July 26 concert will be a family tribute to Ernie Biberdorf, Irene’s brother, who died last fall. It begins at 4 p.m. No admission will be charged. The congregation is hoping for a full house.

It will include musical selections by several of Irene’s relatives. The Biberdorf Choir, potentially 20 members strong, will sing. A niece and her husband from Wisconsin will perform, as will a nephew who is a pastor in Carrington. There will be solos, duets and quartets, according to Irene. She will play three pieces on the organ, “Toccata in E Minor” by Pachelbel, another toccata, “Praise to the Lord” by Micheelsen, and “Prelude and Fugue” by J.S. Bach, her favorite composer.

A light lunch will be served by the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League following the concert.

Immanuel Lutheran Church is located seven miles west and one-half mile north of Willow City.

Some information taken from the Willow City Centurian. “A History of Immanuel Lutheran Church,” Oct. 1985; “Immanuel Organ dates to 1906,” December 1985; and “Freitag featured in Canadian magazine,” February 1987.

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