A Nova Scotia group is trying to save the province's "orphan organs" as churches close and cut back, scrapping the majestic instruments.

Freeman Dryden, organist and choir master at St Mark’s Anglican Church in north-end Halifax, said the situation is dire.

"The very first thing is: panic. We have lost some very valuable instruments over the years," he said Monday.

Dryden is with the Organ Rescue Project, a group trying to protect pipe organs. It has identified 20 "orphan organs" across the province.

They are worth millions of dollars, but in disrepair or at risk of becoming homeless as churches close and amalgamate. 

'It's a thrill, a rush, to be able to make music and let 'er go.' - Organist Freeman Dryden

"I'm looking at those churches and saying in five years they may not be there. That gives us five years to try to make plans to save those organs," he said. "It [would be] be a tragic loss."

He wants to find new homes for the pipe organs, but the logistics are daunting. A big pipe organ can contain 3,500 individual pipes. It would take weeks to dismantle, store, ship and rebuild.

"In the province there are still quite a lot of churches there that are viable that have substitute instruments. I'm just eyeing them and thinking, 'I could put a pipe organ in there,'" Dryden said.

Some have already been lost. When Halifax's Trinity Anglican Church was demolished, its $500,000 pipe organ was broken up. Pieces from a Moncton organ helped upgrade the organ at St. Andrew's United Church.

From sanctuaries to landfills

Kevin Parks, the music director at St. Andrew's United Church in Halifax, said it could happen again. He fears "that they will go to landfills. That they'll be lost, destroyed and they won't be fulfilling their purpose."

Dryden didn't want to publish his list of orphan organs yet, but they cover churches all across Nova Scotia.

He has played organs for more than 50 years and said it is a challenging, but rewarding, instrument. Playing requires coordination between hands and feet.

"It's a thrill, it's a rush to be able to make music and let 'er all go. Every organist wants to pull out all the stops," he said. 

For a pipe organist, that's a literal ambition. The handles used when playing organs are called stops and pulling them all out achieves maximum volume. 

A new pipe organ could cost $750,000. "But there are lots of very fine instruments that have 100 years or more of life left in them that you could have for a fraction of that price," he said.

The long lifespan of a pipe organ spreads out that cost, Dryden said. For example the organ he plays at St. Marks was built in 1921 and still plays beautifully.