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Organ represents more than two centuries of Mennonite history

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As organs go, this one is not very big. But it represents a vast heritage.

In the auditorium of Bethel College’s Kauffman Museum sits a parlor organ, with a label that names it the “Teschemacher/Deknatel/Van der Smissen Organ.” Jakob Teschemacher, of what is now Wuppertal, Germany, built the organ in 1750 as a commission for Johannes Deknatel, a Mennonite pastor in Amsterdam. Deknatel’s Van der Smissen descendants brought the organ to the United States in 1869. Eventually it came to Goessel, and it was donated to Bethel College in 1910.

The organ is one of only nine Teschemacher organs that still exist. It is the sole example in North America and one of perhaps four of them that are still playable.

On Sunday, Nov. 12, at 3:30 p.m., Bethel College adjunct instructor of organ Roseann Penner Kaufman will give a recital on the organ. This is part of Kauffman Museum’s regular Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum series, but it also represents a revitalization of the campaign to restore the organ.

Kaufman did not begin playing the organ until she was a freshman at Bethel College in 1981. However, the Teschemacher organ did influence her.

“My uncle was John Schmidt, curator of Kauffman Museum for many years,” she says. “I remember as a little kid when my parents [Milton and Elda Penner] would come to meetings on campus, I’d wander around the museum. I remember seeing that organ in a cabinet, behind glass.”

Kaufman started at Bethel as a piano major but immediately began taking organ lessons with Shirley King. After three semesters of organ, she asked King, “Can you get me to graduate school on the organ?” King replied that she thought she could, and Kaufman went straight from Bethel to a master’s program at the University of Iowa.

While at Bethel, she had also gotten interested in how organs were put together. It was her great good fortune, she says, that in her senior year, the Dobson organ currently in the chapel was installed.

“I and other students traveled with Shirley to visit organ builders in Dallas, San Antonio and other places,” she says. After King had decided on Lynn Dobson Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa, Kaufman remembers, “I got to know Jon Thieszen [a 1978 Bethel graduate who works for Dobson] and got to watch them put the organ together and install it.”

After she finished her master’s degree at Iowa, Kaufman went to work for Mike Quimby, an organ builder in Warrensburg, Mo. For a year, “I was part of the crew – taking organs apart, moving them and recycling them from one place to another. That’s where my interest in old organs comes from.”

Although she very much enjoyed the work, after a year she decided the life of an organ builder was not for her. By now she was married to Mitch Kaufman, and the amount of travel and extended periods of time away from home weren’t conducive to family life.

She went to the University of Kansas for her doctorate in organ, hoping to teach at the college level, but jobs in the Kansas City area were hard to find. For nine years, she taught computer software. When King left her position as Bethel’s organ instructor right before the school year began in 2002, Kaufman was asked to fill in temporarily, but she has been Bethel’s organ instructor ever since, commuting once a week from Prairie Village.

Why does she love playing the organ? “It’s such a human sound,” she says. “It’s a sound made by wind, with such a wide range of expressions, from a whisper to the overwhelming. With a large organ, you get such a broad palette of sounds – strings, trumpets, reeds. It’s remarkable that one person [playing an organ] can make so much sound.

“And I’m fascinated by the mechanics. I grew up on a farm near Hillsboro, and this is such a wonderful machine.”

Despite her delight in the endless possibilities of a large organ, she retains her love for older and smaller organs, like the one in Kauffman Museum, in part because of the history and resilience it represents.

“This organ is a wonderful tie to our Mennonite history and heritage,” she says. “It’s remarkable that our Mennonite ancestors had the wisdom and good taste to get an organ of such high quality that it survives 250 years later, still playable.”

In 1818, Johannes Deknatel’s grandson, Jacob Van der Smissen II, took the organ with him to Friedrichsstadt, where he had been called to pastor a Mennonite congregation. His son, Carl Justus Van der Smissen, shipped it across the ocean with him in 1869 when he became headmaster of the Wadsworth (Ohio) Institute, the first Mennonite institution of higher education in the United States. Carl Justus’ daughter, Wilhelmina Schwake, had the organ shipped to her in 1901 in Goessel, where she directed the Bethesda Hospital and Home.

Between 1965 and 1972, Esko Loewen, former Bethel College dean, spearheaded an effort to restore the organ, which had sat unused for more than 50 years. He worked with Flentrop Orgelbouw of Zaandam, the Netherlands. When plans for the new Kauffman Museum got underway in 1982, they included a special space for the organ in the auditorium. It was placed there when the museum opened in 1983.

Although the organ has remained playable and has been played since then, it is still in need of significant restoration. An initial gift in 1986 began a restoration fund, and museum staff made contact with Fritz Noack, an organ builder from Georgetown, Mass., about doing it.

Over the years, other projects have taken priority. But now, 20 years later, Fritz Noack remains interested in and excited about restoring the Teschemacher organ, Kaufman says. The organ is pictured on the November page of the 2006-07 Bethel College President’s Club calendar. For that reason, Kauffman Museum director Rachel Pannabecker decided November would be a good time to schedule an organ recital and perhaps to revitalize the campaign to restore it.

Kaufman is calling her recital and lecture on Nov. 12 “Now Thank We All Our God” because it will feature music from an 1806 handwritten “Choralbuch” used by the Mennonite church in Danzig (now Gdansk, Poland).

“We know that [Jacob Van der Smissen II] moved to Danzig in 1826 and we assume he took the organ with him, although he later moved back to Friedrichsstadt,” Kaufman says, which is why she has chosen to focus on the “Choralbuch” in the 200th anniversary year of its appearance. Although the organ was not used in the Danzig Mennonite church, which had its own, “I just want to believe that [the ‘Choralbuch’] was on the music rack of this organ at some time,” she says.

And because the organ was intended to accompany small groups, the audience will share in the presentation by singing selections from the “Choralbuch” that can also be found in the Mennonite Hymnal: A Worship Book, including “Nun danket all Gott” (“Now thank we all our God”), “Freu dich sehr” (tune for “As the hart with eager yearning” and “Comfort, comfort, O my people”) and “Ein feste burg” (“A mighty fortress is our God”). Kaufman will also play chorale arrangements of these tunes by Georg Friedrich Kauffman, Georg Böhm and Samuel Scheidt.

“Given how often this organ was taken apart and moved,” Kaufman says, “it is a testament to its fine construction, relatively simple mechanics and the prestige it must have had with its owners that the little gem is still functional at all.”

The Nov. 12 lecture and concert is free and open to the public. Kauffman Museum is located on the Bethel College campus at 27th and Main in North Newton.

Regular museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Admission to the museum and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” which also includes admission to the other permanent exhibits “Of Land and People” and “Mirror of the Martyrs,” is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 6-16. More information is available by calling the museum at 316-283-1612 or visiting its Web site,

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