The choirs from St. Michael’s Choir School returned to neighbouring St. Michael’s Cathedral-Basilica March 21 for the first time since pandemic restrictions were put in place a year earlier. Photo courtesy St. Michael’s Choir School

St. Michael's Choir School returns to Toronto cathedral for Easter

  • April 1, 2021

After a long year of vocal restrictions, students and staff at St. Michael’s Choir School are thrilled they’ll be lending their voices to Mass at St. Michael’s Cathedral-Basilica again, albeit with safety protocols in place.

The choir voices rang out in the cathedral next door to the downtown Toronto school March 21, the first time since pandemic restrictions came into effect in early 2020, and cathedral rector Frank Portelli says it has “lifted our spirits.”

Despite several safety accommodations including reduction of the size of choir cohorts, extended social distancing and the purchase of specially designed masks for singing, Portelli is excited the cathedral will be open for Holy Week.

Since in-person learning resumed in mid-February, staff and pupils at the all-boys’ school have been busily preparing for Holy Week services.

“The priests and parishioners are all grateful to come together, albeit in limited numbers and following safety protocols, to worship God and to celebrate the mysteries of salvation,” said Portelli. “The choir school further adds to the beauty and solemnity of cathedral celebrations. Even though congregational singing is not yet permitted, it is lovely to listen to, and be transported by the choral singing of the choir school, whether people are physically present in the cathedral or watching via our livestream feed.”

The school has had to find creative ways to fulfill its mandate of serving the church community in song while ensuring the safety of students and staff during rehearsals. Rehearsal spaces at the school have been outfitted with individual singing pods made of PVC pipes with curtains surrounding to form three plastic walls. The school also invested $10,000 to purchase Sing-Safe fabric masks specially designed for performers. Fitting snugly over the nose bridge and under the chin, the masks have an elongated panel in the front to allow for additional jaw movement and to capture aerosol particles and droplets.

The school has also undergone a few changes over the past few months. Former director Fr. Edward Curtis has taken on the Chancellor of Spiritual Affairs role at the Archdiocese of Toronto following the ordination of Auxiliary Bishop Ivan Camilleri. Barry White, who served as principal of the Choral Institute from 2010 to 2017, was appointed interim executive director of the school.

The choir makeup for Masses has changed as well. In normal times each boy would sing every weekend but because the choirs are smaller — 20 voices as opposed to the normal 60 — cohorts are assigned designated Masses as opposed to singing at every service. With all the adjustments the school has had to make due to the pandemic, White hopes being back singing in church is a sign there are only clearer skies ahead.

“I couldn’t speculate on the trajectory of the COVID pandemic, but our boys and our staff have learned to be resilient and to turn on a dime,” said White. “I’d like to think we’re over the worst of it, but I don’t think anybody can predict what’s going to come over the next few weeks but we’re always in a readiness position. Our hope is that the next school year will seem a little more regular in terms of our ability to provide service in the cathedral.”

While the boys sang in the balcony for their first services back, they are singing in the main sanctuary for Holy Week with carefully measured off social distancing markers in place. The smaller choir cohorts mean that each voice really has to do its part.

“The choir is smaller, so each boy has to carry their weight and they’re doing a great job,” said White.

Holy Week Monday the alumni of the choir school will produce a video version of Tenebrae the Vespers Chants in the setting composed by school founder Msgr. Ed Ronan. Every year the junior choir participates in the Stations of the Cross at the cathedral but due to restrictions in place this year, the Grade 6 class has created a virtual Stations of the Cross.

Services are broadcast throughout Holy Week on the cathedral website. Choirs will be singing at Good Friday, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday Masses at 10 a.m. and noon.

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