Photos David Hilbert  



The convent of San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya was founded in 1558 by Fray Jordan de Santa Catalina, a Dominican ascetic, as a retreat for the Dominican priests based in the city of Oaxaca. The original church looked different than the structure we see today, since the choir loft, interior decoration, and façade were added in the early eighteenth century. However, the former convent of modest dimensions, located behind the church, is unchanged.

Even though the exact date of construction of the organ is unknown, it was most likely built around 1725-35, based on characteristics of musical design, decoration, and case construction similar to other organs of the time: San Dionisio Ocotepec (1721), San Andrés Zautla (1726), and San Pedro Quiatoni (1729). The organ was modified in 1735, a date found incised in the largest pipe of a new row of pipes (bardón) installed soon after the original construction. At that time, other modifications were made to the organ: the stop action was altered so that the registers could be controlled by pulling knobs on the front of the case rather than the slider tabs on the sides (you can still see the mortises—rectangular holes—from which the original slider tabs protruded); the case was painted with angel musicians and floral motifs to match the interior decoration of the church; a row of horizontal trumpets was installed on the façade; and the organ was moved from the church floor up into the new choir loft.

During the Revolution (1910-1919), many churches throughout Mexico, including that in Tlacochahuaya, were used as military barracks, and countless organs lost some or all of their pipes, which were melted down for bullets by the soldiers. Those organs which survived, with or without their pipes, the times of political strife were the lucky ones, since so many instruments, altarpieces and other church art, and entire archives were either burned for firewood or simply destroyed. Fortunately, the Tlacochauaya organ lost only a few of its pipes, which were replaced by organbuilder Joachim Wesslowski during the restoration.

After many years of abandonment, the Tlacochahuaya organ was finally restored in 1991 by organbuilder Susan Tattershall, thanks to the support of the Pichiquequiti Foundation. She was assisted by José Luis Falcón, and the case painting was restored by Mireya Olvera. An electric blower was installed in order to create a constant supply of wind to one of the bellows, but the two bellows may still be pumped by hand if necessary.

Since the year 2000, the Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca A.C. has overseen the maintenance of the organ and has encouraged its more regular use. The organ in Tlacochahuaya is not a large instrument, but its robust sound is enhanced by the acoustical properties inherent in the architectural design of the church, so that this little organ is capable of filling the entire space with its music.