World Renowned Organist’s Career Began At Molino Church

September 6, 2015

When Tom Helms, Jr. was a boy growing up in the Molino Methodist Church, he had dreams of the sounds of a pipe organ filling the sanctuary.  That dream, and his love for pipe organ music, eventually took Helms around the globe where he is respected as one of top organ designers and organ players.

His musical resume is no less impressive than the resounding tones of the organ. He’s played venues across the globe, written ballets such as “Dracula”,  “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Little Mermaid”, and been featured on regional and national television.

But it all goes back to a very musical family in Molino.

“We were the the Von Trapps of Molino,” he said, referring to the family in The Sound of Music. “All of my siblings, the entire family, loved to sing and loved music.”

Helms grew up in the Molino Methodist Church and and was presented at the inception of Aldersgate United Methodist in 1965.  During his teen years he played for the church and developed the music program for the church.

And, when visiting other large churches, heard and fell in love with the pipe organ.

“I could not get of the sound of the organ,” he said. He eventually taught himself how to play the grand instrument.

He went on to attend the University of Alabama  studying and playing the organ.  And playing Denny Chimes, the famous bell tower symbol of the University of Alabama. He then moved to Texas Christian University to continue his studies, and continuing to play.

Along the way, he began to design and build organs, completing four of the largest pipe organs built in the United States in the last 60 years…including one at Pensacola Christian College. He also restored the grand organ at Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre.

Helms never forgot his dream of an organ at Aldersgate in Molino, with his installation taking place in late 1991.  His dream was realized when the organ was first played during morning worship on January 26, 1992.  Dedicating the organ to Mrs. Hazel Matthews (member and long-time organist at Molino/Aldersgate Church) and William E. Helms, Sr. (his parental grandfather) Helms presented a recital on the new organ on February 16, 1992.

The Aldersgate organ may not be the grandest of them all, but it holds a special place in Helms’ heart. The electric console was built in 1949 and was being discarded by a church in Cleveland, OH. Helms acquired and reworked the console, which is constructed of solid walnut wood. The racks of pipes, the bellows and all the hundreds of parts that make it all work were a combination of parts built by Helms and vintage spares.

“It’s really quite simple,” he quipped as he sat down at the console. It’s just  a bunch of keys and switches, but it’s not that hard to get something out that sounds good, instead of something that sounds like a bunch of cats fighting.” Those keys and switches and pedals all control the flow of air through hundreds of pipes.  And in the case of the Aldersgate organ, many of those pipes are in room separated from the sanctuary by large shutters, allowing volume control.

As he played, the sounds ranged from a soft and subtle tone  to a deep base that could rattle the pews.

“It is really one of the most thrilling and majestic musical instruments. The sound comes from all around. You hear it, you feel it.”

Helms presented a free recital Saturday night on the Aldersgate organ, a program he said was designed to inspire audience members to sing.

“If I inspire the audience, I’ve done my job,” he said.

For more photos, click here.

Pictured top and top inset: Organist Tom Helms at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Molino. Pictured bottom inset and below: Some of the hundreds of pipes that make up the organ that Helms built. photos, click to enlarge.


11 Responses to “World Renowned Organist’s Career Began At Molino Church”

  1. david lamb on September 8th, 2015 1:03 am

    “small switches” become large switches!
    I spent 23 years flying and maintaining Strategic Air Command “Looking Glass aircraft. One time Is not scheduled to fly, but was riding a response vehicle with other specialist when a call came out for my assistance. Seems a co-worker, who was flying that day, could not get one of the many electronic systems to power up.
    The aircraft was ready to take off and could not take off until all systems were operational. This was a special Air Force mission that maintained aerial support over the US 24-7, 365 days a year.. All 4 engines were running and it was crunch time. I hurriedly climbed the ladder to enter this huge Boeing 707(EC-135) and proceeded to where the operator was. He examined his problem, with the General listening. I had no lights on any of that systems equipment, it was a communication system to send messages to our fleet of submarines in the oceans of the world. I looked at master control panel and turned the on-off switch to on. Lo and beholh.. it came to life. “small switches become large switches”

  2. nancy on September 7th, 2015 11:18 am

    Listening to Tom with your eyes closed is what the music in heaven will sound like I pray. It is wonderful.

  3. Myra Martin on September 7th, 2015 7:48 am

    Tom is the best of the best when it comes to organs. His gifts of love for the instrument and the ability to bring out the very best sounds in each one has blessed so many lives. What a great man he is!

  4. Jim on September 6th, 2015 8:09 pm

    I was the pastor Aldersgate at the time Tom Helms built the pipe organ. It was a wonderful project which brought the church together in a unique way. At the recital on Feb. 16,1992, the sanctuary was packed. Tom came out dressed in his tuxedo and took his seat at the organ. He touched the keys for the opening piece, and not a sound was made. We waited anxiously as Tom got up from the organ. We could hear his footsteps as he climbed the ladder which took him to the room which houses the pipes and countless other parts. We heard the sound of a “click” which was followed by the sound of his footsteps as he descended and returned to the sanctuary. There was a small switch which had been placed in the “OFF” position, and that small switch had caused Tom a little embarrassment and the rest of us moments of anxiety. When he touched the keyboard this time, wonderful music filled the sanctuary. Tom’s dream of a pipe organ for Aldersgate has blessed and inspired many many worshipers in the years since. To God be the glory…….

  5. mq on September 6th, 2015 2:04 pm

    Love reading about positive and successful people in Escambia County(FL). Too often all you hear about are the ones who choose to do wrong, live wrong, and aren’t interested in making anything of their lives. Some I know aren’t at fault, but others choose to live and be that way.
    God has blessed this man and once again William, THANK YOU for sharing a positive and inspirational story.

  6. Cindy on September 6th, 2015 12:58 pm

    Tom Helms is also a very humble man in spite of his talent and fame. It’s wonderful that he uses his talent to glorify God as well as to entertain.

  7. Terry on September 6th, 2015 9:45 am

    Listening to Tom Helms play last night was truly inspiring. Not only did Tom give a wonderful performance, he engaged the audience with his stories and also taught us a little about the organ, the composers, and the history of the songs he played.

  8. Cindy on September 6th, 2015 8:53 am

    Awesome, awesome recital last night!!

  9. Karen Brandt Teets on September 6th, 2015 8:50 am

    Tom’s (Tommy’s) talents were displayed at school too! I remember sharing a music theory class with him. On my worst days, when I would come into class and hear him play, it would put a smile on my face. He could tell a whole story just by playing the piano as well as the organ.

  10. Native 1950 on September 6th, 2015 8:23 am

    Amazing job!!! How wonderful…

  11. Jan on September 6th, 2015 6:38 am

    Great story. Thank you!

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