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We are very grateful to David A. Heller, Trinity University, for his research and study on the history of the various organs that have served the Chapel of the Incarnate Word, and the prayer life of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word.

The Organ

In 2007, the Chapel of the Incarnate Word underwent extensive renovation and restoration.  The Congregation made the decision to replace the Wicks organ that had been in use since 1946: an entirely new instrument by the Schoenstein Company of San Francisco.  This instrument was the first installation by this firm in San Antonio in 2010.  It features a 3-manual and pedal console with 27 ranks of pipes, including a Sanctuary division located to the right of the sanctuary.  This small division of the organ is played from both the main console in the rear gallery as well as a separate keyboard located in the sanctuary area.  Since its dedication, the Chapel and Congregation has hosted numerous recitals and concerts featuring local and national artists, as well as choral and instrumental ensembles. Click here to see the stop list of the Schoenstein.

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The Chapel of the Incarnate Word and its relationship with the King of Instruments is the story of not one pipe organ, but four different organs that have served this congregation since its founding in 1869.  The first three sisters of the order arrived in San Antonio from the Monastery of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament in Lyon, France. Shortly after their arrival, a harmonium was purchased, built by the Debain Company in Paris. Its serial number places its manufacture around 1872. Alexandre Francois Debain was a French inventor who developed the harmonium in the mid-nineteenth century; these small one or two manual reed organs were prevalent throughout Europe and America in churches and homes.  This first organ for the congregation still exists today, and can be seen in the Heritage Center on the second floor, near the west door to the Chapel. 

The Congregation purchased the property at Broadway and Hildebrand Avenue from prominent San Antonian, Colonel George Brackenridge in 1897.  The chapel, built in 1907, facilitated the installation of a new pipe organ in 1909 by the William Schuelke Company of Milwaukee with the opus number of 211.  Schuelke was a prominent builder in the upper Midwest with numerous installations in Catholic churches. The stoplist of this instrument is unknown; however, the Organ Historical Society Database (compiled by Elizabeth T. Schmitt) reports that this organ had two manuals with pedal.


The console of the Schoenstein, looking toward the sanctuary of the Chapel of the Incarnate Word.

The first instrument in the Chapel, a harmonium built in 1872.

The Schoenstein Organ, Op. 159

Installed in 2010.

The next organ in the Chapel’s history was a rebuild of Schuelke’s 1909 installation.  The Wicks Organ Company of Highland Park, Illinois built a 3-manual and pedal organ with 17 ranks and a total of 1,192 pipes, of which 773 pipes were taken from Schuelke’s earlier installation.  A typical feature of a Wicks organ was the use of direct-electric action which enabled the console to have 42 stops tabs with sets of pipes playing from different keyboards.   The Organ Historical Society’s database dates this instrument as 1944; however, a written history of the organ by Sister Maria Goretti Zehr (in the Congregation’s archives) gives the date of 1946 for its installation.  Perhaps the earlier date reflects the signing of the contract, and construction was begun at the conclusion of World War II.

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Sr. Maria Goretti Zehr, CCVI at the console of the Wicks organ which served the Chapel from 1946-2010.

No discussion of the Chapel’s organs or music program is complete without recognizing one of the most influential individuals in the Congregation.  Sr. Maria Goretti Zehr, CCVI was born in 1931 in St. Louis, Missouri.  She professed her vows to the order in 1952, and completed her Master of Music degree in organ from the University of Texas at Austin in 1959-60.  From 1961-64, Sr. Goretti served the Chapel and Incarnate Word College until she left to assume a teaching position at the order’s high school in New Orleans from 1964-67.  She returned to San Antonio, joining the faculty again at Incarnate Word College until 1971 whereupon she entered Indiana University School of Music to pursue a doctoral degree in organ performance.  Sr. Goretti returned to San Antonio in 1977 where she remained on the faculty at the University of the Incarnate Word until her passing in 2001.

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