Few pipe organs in the world have a nickname, a feminine pronoun, and a Facebook fan page.
The Hazel Wright organ, affectionately known as “Hazel” by her admirers, was removed piece by piece in 2013 from Christ Cathedral’s gleaming sanctuary in Orange County, Southern California, and shipped to Italy for repair. At the time, the fifth-largest pipe organ in the world was infested with bugs. Its pipes had melted, and its trumpets had corroded.
Hazel is back in the fully remodeled sanctuary, and heavenly chords from her pipes once again ring out in the vaulted nave of the iconic church, nearly a decade and $3 million later.
The Hazel Wright organ, named after its original benefactor, was heard by millions around the world during the heyday of what was then known as the Crystal Cathedral, founded by televangelist Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who hosted the weekly Christian TV program “Hour of Power.” The Garden Grove church is a local landmark and tourist attraction, with its majestic spire visible from some of the county’s freeways.
After Crystal Cathedral Ministries declared bankruptcy, the organ and the building were purchased in 2011 by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, which later launched a $72 million sanctuary renovation that was completed in 2019.
According to the Very Rev. Christopher Smith, rector of Christ Cathedral, reviving the organ was a top priority, regardless of cost. While $3 million may appear to be a large sum, he claims that a brand-new organ of comparable scope would cost five times that amount or more.
The organ was built in the late 1970s and dedicated in 1982 under the supervision of master organist Virgil Fox. To create the Hazel Wright organ, the Fratelli Ruffatti — or Ruffatti brothers — a multigenerational company of specialists in Padua, Italy, grafted an Aeolian-Skinner organ purchased from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall with one made by Fratelli Ruffatti in 1977.
When it was time for repairs, it was returned to the Ruffattis factory in Padua in 2013. The pieces were shipped back to Orange County after extensive work, where they sat in a temperature-controlled storage facility for four years while the cathedral was renovated. Piero Ruffatti, who originally built Hazel, then returned in late 2019 for the reinstallation.
However, that was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Italy as hard as any other country early on. Ruffatti put the project on hold and boarded the last flight out of Los Angeles on March 17, 2020, to return home. He returned in November 2021, after travel restrictions were lifted, and finished the job in late January.
The organ had 270 ranks, or sets of pipes, ranging in length from 4 inches to 32 feet; five keyboards; and the world’s largest draw-knob console to control the sound.
It has approximately 17,000 pipes in 293 ranks in its current configuration, making it the largest pipe organ in a Roman Catholic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere, according to Ball.
According to Ruffatti, the acoustical environment for the organ is better than ever thanks to the sanctuary remodel.
Frederick Swann, who played the organ at the Crystal Cathedral almost every Sunday from 1982 to 1998, served as a consultant on the project and agreed that it sounds better in the renovated building. Swann, 90, recalled one of his most memorable moments: playing the organ with a tiger cub on the console, one of the live animals featured in the Crystal Cathedral’s famed “Glory of Christmas” pageant. He’s overjoyed to see Hazel still alive and well.
However, fine-tuning the delicate instrument is an ongoing process that will take several months, according to Kevin Cartwright, president of Los Angeles-based Rosales Organ Builders, which has been contracted to maintain the instrument at a cost of about $75,000 per year to the diocese. This necessitates him climbing ladders several stories high.
Hazel has had her own Facebook page, The Hazel Wright Organ Society, since 2009, and it now has over 2,400 members.