Massey Hall will be filled with the voices of the St. Michael’s Choir School Dec. 6 and 7 as they perform their annual Christmas concerts Photo by Michael Swan

At St. Michael’s Choir School, tradition matters

By 
  • November 29, 2014

TORONTO - St. Michael’s Choir School brings Christmas, real Christmas, in six-part polyphony, to Toronto’s Massey Hall for the 49th time this Dec. 6 and 7. But if you haven’t managed to buy a $20 to $50 ticket yet, you could head down to Shuter Street and look for a scalper.

Last year, for the first time, choir school director Steve Handrigan saw scalpers outside Massey Hall offering people a last-minute, slightly inflated, sort-of-illegal chance to get in on the Toronto Christmas tradition. Handrigan does not encourage anybody to go to the scalpers, but is sneakily proud of the fact scalpers are making a buck off the annual event.

“It kind of means you’ve made it,” he said.

For 77 years the St. Michael’s boys have been singing music that spans more than 1,000 years of musical history. Whether it’s Christmas, Easter, Lent or another Sunday, for the choir school tradition is everything.

“What we are passionate about is our history, our legacy and our importance within the archdio-cese,” said Handrigan. “That fun-damentally has not changed and will not change.”

When St. Michael’s Choir School began in 1937 under Msgr. John Edward Ronan — and it remains today one of only six pon-tifical choir schools in the world — it was there to preserve, protect and promote a tradition.

“The music we do requires a certain skill set and the depth that we really take the time to teach,” said Handrigan.

But caring for a tradition is less straightforward than it was four or five generations ago when the school was a kind of touchstone for Catholic Toronto.

“It’s not like 30 years ago, when everybody just knew what we were about and you didn’t have to promote it,” Handrigan said.

“The school has existed for 77 years and it has never had a strategic plan.”

In 2014 a musical and religious institution that rests on a foun-dation of tradition can’t get by without plainly stating the who, what and why of its existence. Which is why parishes, alumni, clergy and hundreds of parents found the first-ever St. Michael’s Choir School Strategic Plan in their mail boxes in early November.

“In the ’60s and ’70s, people sort of knew about the school in-stinctively,” said Handrigan. “I think maybe we lost that a little bit. By coming out with a plan we’re reminding people this is what we’re about.”

The plan sets out a long list of goals for the next five years covering not just music and education but also its relationship with the Archdiocese of Toronto, staff development, how the school works with families and volun-teers, financial goals and commu-nications.

Looming in the background of the strategic plan is the Archdio-cese of Toronto’s own pastoral and strategic plans. Central to Cardinal Thomas Collins’ vision for a refocused and more evangelical Catholic Toronto is the redevelop-ment of the land south of Dundas between Bond and Church Streets — where St. Michael’s Choir School is located next to St. Michael’s Cathedral.

Not only does the school buy into the cardinal’s plans, it can’t come fast enough, said Handrigan. If what the Arch-diocese of Toronto is calling Cathedral Square goes forward, that means a new, modern and improved school building to replace Toronto’s oldest school building still in use, dating back to the 1905-06 school year.

“There are rooms in that building that cannot be used because of mold concerns. We put duct tape on things to keep going,” said Handrigan. “We don’t want to spend money, real money, on the buildings because we know that — please God — we will be under one roof soon.”

Talks are currently underway to get a new school built at 66 Bond St. The facade of the old building would likely remain, for the sake of tradition. But the school behind that facade would be completely new, including a rooftop play-ground.

“It will be an urban school that’s all contained and it will all make sense,” said Handrigan.

But architecture and land de-velopment does not dominate the lives of the choir school community. Music does.

As soon as the Christmas concert is done the boys will be getting ready for a tour of New-foundland’s Avalon Peninsula, including the Basilica Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in St. John’s in May. In 2017 the boys will tour Europe, including a stop at the Cologne Cathedral which maintains one of the other five pontifical choir schools in the world.

“We want the boys to have an international touring experi-ence, but we also don’t want to stray too far from our roots,” said Handrigan.

Every chance the school gets to bring the tradition of Catholic liturgical music to small-town Ontario and Quebec is a chance to re-establish those roots. People who may otherwise never have the opportunity to hear a live perfor-mance of music by composers as diverse as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina and Joseph Gelineau, Igor Stravinsky and Domenico Scarlatti greet a concert by the St. Michael’s Choir School as a major event.

“That’s where we get our best reception,” said Handrigan.

Handrigan does not see the school as an elite bauble that functions mainly to let the world know how large, rich and important the Archdiocese of Toronto is in the Catholic world. The school is there to serve the parishes of Toronto and beyond — to help them worship out of the riches of Catholic tradition.

“We want to connect with the parishes,” he said. “How can we help you with your music programs?”

Handrigan is waiting by his phone, strategic plan in hand, for a call from your parish. 

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