“The Catholic tradition is very accommodating and supportive of music so I started calling around to churches.” said Cameron, 27, who is originally from Alberta. Photo by Meggie Hoegler

Sweet sounds among the scaffolds: Opera singer rehearses in church under renovation

  • October 13, 2017
Photos by Meggie Hoegler
The sweet soprano sounds that echoed from St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Toronto could have come from a Mass at the Vatican.

Aspiring opera singer Bailey Cameron is singing Ava Maria as extensive renovations take place inside the church. There is scaffolding everywhere as workers and architects in hardhats review blueprints When Cameron finishes her song, they pause and applaud.

The century-old church, located in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood, is a well kept secret with musicians looking for a place to practice. The stone floors and high ceilings create incredible acoustics. The construction does not bother Cameron, who moved to the city last month and was in search somewhere to hone her craft.

“The Catholic tradition is very accommodating and supportive of music so I started calling around to churches. St. Francis is close to where I live and it just seemed like the perfect place to practice,” said Cameron, 27, who is originally from Alberta.

She decided to move to Toronto to pursue her opera career after completing her Master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. “It’s ethereal. I can’t see any of the workers but I know they’re there. Sometimes I’ll hear gentle knocks or shuffling while I’m singing away but I hardly even notice.”

Cameron was concerned her practicing might interfere with the construction. On the contrary, it has been welcome entertainment.

“When the offices of St. Francis called and asked if an opera singer could use to nave of the church to practice, we said absolutely,” said Carol Bragagnolo from Angelus and Associates Ltd. “Our construc-tion manager and site supervisor were fine with it. They said she won’t get in the way. A voice can be heard but it can’t get hurt.”

Fr. Jimmy Zammit has been the pastor at St. Francis since 2012. He was thrilled to have Cameron come and practice.

“It’s about helping someone out. Being open and welcoming is how people begin to feel at home and we hope this will become Bailey’s spiritual home as well.”

Cameron, who was touched by the warm welcome she received from Zammit, hopes to join the church choir. “They had no idea who I was. I just called them, asked if I could use the space to practice and they welcomed me with open arms. I’m excited to get back into a church choir too, it’s something I did throughout my Master’s and I miss it.” Cameron is currently working at the University of Toronto in its pharmacy department while she looks for singing opportunities.

“It’s a career where you’re always learning and adapting,” said Cameron. “I hope to perform some contemporary Canadian work. I think it’s so important to champion our new music.” She also enjoys performing the classics. In particular, romantic German lead. “They are absolutely heartbreaking, but so moving to perform and hear.”

She speaks French, some German and is learning Italian. “In opera, pronunciation is the basis. We learn that in school but you spend the rest of your life developing a cadence for the language and learning its flow. I just finished a training program in Italy to help with my pronunciation.”

St. Francis itself has roots within the Italian-Canadian community. Built between 1914 and 1915 and designed by English-Canadian architect, Arthur Holmes, it is the only Italian Gothic church in Toronto. Over the past century, the church has gone from primarily Italian parishioners to Portuguese. Now the parishioners come from all corners of the globe. But the original Italian and Portuguese families are still present, in some families, all three generations attend Sunday mass. When the roof started to leak and the paint started coming off of the walls, the long-time parishioners were eager to see their family church receive the TLC it desperately needed.

“Our focus is primarily on the roof and walls which had been leaking quite a bit,” said Terry White, the lead architect. The church and construction teams hope to accomplish as much as possible during the restoration. They have replaced the leaking roof with a new slate one. They will restore the stained glass windows, re-plaster and paint.

“The set-up and dismantle of scaffolding costs over $200,000,” said Ryan Moxam, construction manager with Buttcon Ltd. “We also pay a monthly rental fee. It is best to do all the renovations at once so the church doesn’t have to pay that set-up fee again.”

St. Francis is still holds regular masses and sacraments despite the ongoing construction.

“We even did one wedding,” said Zammit. “But most of the weddings we had booked opted for other parishes and the priests there welcomed them. Most often the refrain is: ‘As long as the paperwork is done at St. Francis and as long as one of the priests come over to do the ceremony, we’re fine.’ ”

Zammit says parishioners frequently ask about the renovations. “They want to know when the scaffolding is coming down and when it’s going to be finished. But there’s no easy answer to that.”

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing. People need to understand that we are doing all of this so that the church lasts another 100 years. It is still a sacred place of prayer, construction is just a part of life,” said Vince Nigro, who has been a parishioner at St. Francis for over 45 years. Nigro helps with the restoration as much as possible, volunteering his time to organize fundraisers and connect the church with potential benefactors. He has a vested interest in the church’s future. Many of his most cherished moments happened there.

“I met my wife here, one of the former pastors introduced us. We got married here, our children were baptized here and I buried my father in this church. You go through life and all the changes that come with it but the church is a constant, it is always there.”

As Cameron is putting on her jacket to leave. Nigro, who has a recording studio, hands her his business card and invites her to rehearse at his studio.

“That’s incredible that he offered that,” said an excited Cameron. “This place has been so good to me in the short time I’ve been here.”

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