A jewel turns 75

  • January 16, 2013

“Great music,” Pope Benedict once said, “awakens profound sentiments and almost naturally invites us to lift up our mind and heart to God in every situation of human existence. Music can become prayer.”

St. Michael’s Choir School in the heart of downtown Toronto has been making great music and prayer for 75 years. It is celebrating its diamond jubilee this year much as you’d expect — by singing at several special events, topped by a spring tour to Italy which includes a performance at St. Peter’s Basilica.

The choir school is truly a jewel in the crown of the Canadian Church and richly deserves gratitude and congratulations from the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people whose Sunday Mass experience over the decades has been enriched by St. Mike’s melodious graduates.

In addition to singing at St. Michael’s Cathedral, the school has moulded generations of cantors and organists who have taken the gift of music to countless parishes. Along with others, these St. Mike’s grads bring liturgical harmony not only to parishes in the Toronto and area, but their voices brighten pews across Canada and, in some cases, internationally. Many have become teachers themselves and share their passion with new generations of church musicians.

Enriching parish musical life was always the main objective of the school’s founder, Msgr. John Edward Ronan. He opened St. Mike’s with 18 boys. A talented musician and prolific composer himself, Ronan’s students learned musical theory, classical piano as well as singing. They came to him with raw singing ability and graduated ready to serve the Church as well-rounded musicians.

Success was almost instant. By the 1940s, the choir had recorded the first of nine albums. In 1955 it was welcomed as an affiliate of the Vatican’s Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, only the sixth choir school so honoured. The choir began touring in 1967 and, at dozens of concerts around the world, sang for prime ministers, popes and a queen. At every stop, the boys of St. Mike’s faithfully harmonized the borderless language of music with the universal message of the Church.

The school also shaped young talent that found success in non-liturgical musical genres. Two popular 1950s singing groups, the Crew Cuts and Four Lads, were alumni. Likewise for tenors Michael Burgess and John McDermott, jazz singer Matt Dusk, pianist Stewart Goodyear and opera stars Michael Schade and Robert Pomakov. But they are the school’s secondary stars.

In Colossians, St. Paul teaches: “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.” The boys of St. Michael’s have been faithful to that teaching for 75 years. They have made joyful music and given proof to the Pope’s words that music can become prayer.


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