A 355-person-strong group from Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School will be spending Easter and beyond in Rome, and will sing for Pope Francis at a general audience. Photo courtesy of St. Michael’s Choir School

Easter prepares St. Michael’s Choir School for Rome

  • March 31, 2013

TORONTO - Holy Week is always a busy time for students of St. Michael’s Choir School, but four-hour rehearsals this year are not just for their requisite masses at St. Michael’s Cathedral. On Easter Monday, 180 boys from the choir school will board a plane and head to Italy for a series of musical engagements, and the opportunity to sing for Pope Francis.

“It’s such an honour to be invited to do this,” says choir school director Stephen Handrigan.

“Very few choirs in the world can get in the door there in terms of being able to sing. I think it speaks to the reputation of the school and the high standards that we have achieved in liturgical music.”

Indeed, the 355-person-strong group will be performing and listening to some of Western music’s greatest achievements in some of the Catholic Church’s most magnificent places of worship.

“On April 7 we’re singing a High Mass at St. Peter’s (Basilica),” said Handrigan, who mentions that due to the indeterminate nature of Vatican scheduling, the Mass may be presided over by Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins, or perhaps a higher ranking celebrant.

“There is a possibility that it could be His Holiness Pope Francis on that day. Again, he’s just been appointed and his schedule is being decided, so we may luck out. You just never know at this point.”

Additionally, the young men will have the opportunity to perform a selection for Pope Francis at a papal audience, and the Grade 12 graduating class will be singing vespers at St. Peter’s on April 7 as well. During the High Mass at St. Peter’s they will have the privilege of performing with the Cappella Giulia, one of the greatest Gregorian choirs in the world, this year celebrating its 500th anniversary.

“Another part of the tour which we’re very excited about is that the Canadian Pontifical College in Rome is celebrating their 125th anniversary this year, and that’s where all the Canadian priests go to study,” said Handrigan.

“So, we have connected with (them)… and they are hosting a concert at the Canadian Martyrs Church in Rome. We’re sort of kicking off their 125th anniversary year with this concert.”

As one of only six schools in the world that is associated with the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, St. Michael’s has a historical connection with the city and with the Vatican, which Handrigan says they are looking to rekindle.

“Msgr. (Edward) Ronan founded the school here in 1937, but he studied at the Pontifical Institute (of Sacred Music) in the early ’30s. We’re doing a concert at the Pontifical Institute in Rome and we’re doing it at the Academic Hall, right in the physical spaces where he studied,” said Handrigan.

“We actually have (an inscribed) portrait of Ronan that we’re going to present to the Institute so that they can hang it in their hallowed hallways. He is of international significance. Part of the tour will highlight that — not only for the boys and their families but also for the Institute itself.”

Ronan’s vast body of composition and his contributions to sacred music are evident by their continued importance in the sacred music canon, and in the many young men who have studied at the choir school.

“We also have a doctorate student from Canada… who’s studying at the Pontifical Institute this year, and as part of his PhD, he’s taken all of Ronan’s music and organized it and catalogued it, so now for the first time since Ronan’s death we have a full catalogue of his music, and now we’re exploring different ways to make it an online resource,” said Handrigan.

“So, tied in with our tour is a re-igniting of Ronan awareness.”

For the young men who are embarking on this rigourous adventure, the task is just part and parcel of what they are called to do as musicians and as members of the choir school.

“If I go back to the mission of the school, it’s to primarily provide music for (St. Michael’s) Cathedral, but, it’s also to instil a sense of service within the boys to go off and as young adults, and for the rest of their lives, to serve their local parishes,” said Handrigan.

“I think the boys are going to get a sense of the world influence that the Catholic Church has.” For the young men of St. Michael’s, this will be an experience that they will carry forever.

“Going to Italy, back to the mother church and St. Peter’s in Rome, I think it’s going to solidify the bigger picture of the Catholic Church,” said Handrigan.

“I think it will be life changing for our boys to have that opportunity and to be in that sacred space and to go back to the roots of what we do musically.”

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