By John Rice
It's an ongoing tragedy in Forest Park that we continue to lose our historical treasures. That may seem unimportant compared to other issues we face. But, as a member of the Historical Society, I believe preserving our rich history is crucial to our community.
Our latest casualty is the organ that graced the sanctuary of St. Peter's for over a century.
This is no ordinary organ. It was built by the A.B. Felgemaker Co., of Erie, Pennsylvania, a company that specialized in portable pipe organs for front parlors and small churches. The company custom-designed one for the cozy sanctuary at 500 Hannah.
No less than steel magnate Andrew Carnegie donated $500 toward its purchase for the members of St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The church was founded in 1899 by seven families, who had moved from Chicago to Forest Park. The organ's sound was reportedly "warm and rich" and served the congregation well. The instrument was updated in 1976 and underwent annual tuning and maintenance. It is one of only two Felgemaker organs surviving in Illinois.
That is, if it still survives.
St. Peter's member, Judy Jilek, spearheaded the effort to have the organ and the church's façade placed on the National Historic Register. With an assist from a college student, Jilek succeeded. Her husband, Phil, the church's longtime custodian, attached the plaque honoring the church as a landmark, dated May 11, 2009.
So you can imagine Judy and Phil's dismay when they drove down the alley behind what is now Mt. Moriah Baptist Church and saw the dismantled organ sitting in the bed of a Ford pickup truck. Jilek told the driver that the organ could not be removed from the church. This happened about three weeks ago and the organ hasn't been seen since.
Jilek had previously spoken to Pastor Maurice Streeter about the importance of preserving the organ. She provided him with the name of the company they used to maintain it. Streeter told her they weren't going to use the organ. His church had brought their Hammond B3 organ from their previous location, at 1450 S. Kolin, to accompany their gospel choir.
Mt. Moriah was welcomed to Forest Park in June 2013 at a ceremony led by Mayor Calderone. They had purchased the church for their Chicago-based congregation and Pastor Streeter personally owns the building.
According to Diane Grah, former executive director of the Forest Park Historical Society, "When St. Peter's was sold to Mt. Moriah in 2013, a rider stipulated that the organ and other original furnishings stay in the church."
I went to Mt. Moriah when I heard the organ was missing. A member named Deirdre told me they did not use the organ and that it had stopped working. She said the organ was removed from the sanctuary to create more space. She denied knowing its whereabouts but referred me to Pastor Streeter.
When I called him, he deflected my questions by insisting that the organ was not important, compared to other issues the congregation faced. He talked about the violence in Chicago and his church's role in counteracting it. He described how their ministry in the community was much more important than the missing organ.
I agree that human lives are more valuable than a musical instrument. But as I emphasized to Pastor Streeter, we only wanted to know where the organ was, so we could preserve it. He never answered my question. Jilek fears that it may be resting in a landfill, along with the piano and pews that were removed from the balcony.
"It's a piece of our history," Jilek lamented. "The pastor could have called the village or the Historical Society." The day she spotted the organ in the alley, she sounded the alarm to members of the Historical Society and village hall. However, she does not see much hope for its recovery.
Pastor Streeter says he places human life above historic treasures. But like a human organ, this historic instrument could have been transplanted to another location and given new life.
John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries.