Photo by Jacques Dillies on Unsplash

Gregorian chant renewal in the works

By  Susan Korah, Catholic Register Special
  • October 7, 2022

Lawrence Harris has a renewed vision of service forged and refined in the fire of COVID-19 that raged across the world for nearly three years.

“My hope is to bring an ancient, beautiful and deeply contemplative form of sacred music back to life for people in the Catholic Church and outside of it, through a group of committed singers determined to give their best to this tradition of church music,” he said.

Harris is the director of the Ottawa-based Chorus Ecclesiae, a choir that specializes in Gregorian chant and also sings renaissance and modern four-part choral works. Sadly, the voices of the choir had been stilled during the pandemic, but Harris is working to change that.

“COVID took away church music for everyone,” he said.

He is determined to resume such popular Ottawa events  as “Come Sing Chant,” a singalong event for the choir and public, and the Good Friday and Christmas performances that used to bring thousands to hear the sonorous and spiritually enriching sounds of this music each year.

On Nov. 22 Chorus Ecclesiae will hold its first “Come Sing Chant” in three years at Ottawa’s Dominican University College.

His recent call for new recruits has so far elicited a response from a dozen committed people. Harris said that all choristers are students of the course he teaches through the Canadian Symposium on Music in Liturgy at the Dominican University.

“But we need at least 20, and more people are welcome to enroll,” he said. “I am  looking for men and women who have had some experience of singing in a choir and have a good ear for music. We will teach them how to read the 12th-century music notation and how to pronounce the Latin texts — both are much easier than they might imagine.”

The time is ripe for a musical renewal, he said.

“With COVID, the wars that followed and financial setbacks, we live in uncertain times,” he said. “The world needs this kind of beauty and excellence more than ever. If we can bring this music to life again in its deepest interpretation, people can participate in something good, something truly beautiful that would complement our busy, stressful lives. The pandemic increased an urgency and determination to rebuild this choir to its highest level of excellence.”

A form of monophonic, unaccompanied sacred song of the Catholic Church, the Gregorian chant has as its purpose the praise and service of God. Its popularity has waxed and waned over the centuries but since the 1990s, Chorus Ecclesiae with Harris as director became an important part of Holy Week for thousands in Ottawa.

“It enriches the singers as well as the audience,” he said. “You don’t have to be a Catholic to see the richness of this. It lifts you up out of your day-to-day experiences.”

He recalled the pre-pandemic days when he took students for part of the course to Abbaye Saint-Pierre de Solesmes, a Benedictine monastery in Solesmes, France. Home to a living community of Benedictine monks, the abbey is  steeped in 1,000 years of history and famous for its role in reviving Gregorian chant throughout the Christian world.

He hopes his students will be able to study there again at some point in the future, but right now it’s “one step at a time.”

The director of Chorus Ecclesiae — who grew up in Montreal — comes by his passion for Gregorian chant naturally. He was introduced to this type of music around the age of 11 or 12.

“My parents were musical, but not professional,” he said. “One day my father brought home two albums. One was a recording by the monks of Solesmes and the other was one of short choral pieces by William Walton, the 20th-century British composer.  I was hooked.  And I was conscripted to play the organ at age 11.”

Harris later studied at the Catholic University of America with Theodore Marier, a famous educator and scholar of Gregorian chant who himself had studied at Solesmes. Harris is also director of the New York Gregorian Chant Project in Manhattan besides being Chorus Ecclesiae’s director and has led chant seminars with many choirs and organizations including the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians. 

“It’s not all clouds and butterflies to rebuild from scratch,” he says of his current project to resurrect Chorus Ecclesiae. “But it’s an honour for me to do this. My payoff is that I’m the ring leader who is making all this happen.”

Anyone interested in joining can contact Harris at

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