Heribert Michel has been in music ministry in Peterborough, Ont., since coming to Canada from Germany in 1951.

Organist’s short stay lasts 60 years - and counting

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  • May 18, 2011

When he arrived from Germany in 1951, the then 20-year-old Heribert Michel planned to stay in Canada for three years. He wanted to get work experience as an organist and choir director and learn a new language after graduating at the top of his class from Germany’s prestigious Regensburg Academy of Church Music. His uncle, a priest, expected him back in Germany to be the new organist and choir director when reconstruction of their parish, destroyed during the Second World War, was complete.

So much for those plans. Sixty years later, Michel remains in Canada. After meeting his wife, Suzanne, he chose to stay, settling in Peterborough, Ont., where the couple raised four children and now have 10 grandchildren.

The diocese of Peterborough is celebrating Michel’s six decades of service through his music ministry. On May 21, an anniversary Mass was to be held at St. Peter-in-Chains Cathedral, officiated by Bishop Nicola De Angelis, with a reception to follow. Among the special guests expected are MP Dean Del Mastro, MPP Jeff Leal, papal knights and Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus.

“I’m quite thankful that I was able to be in this music ministry for 60 years,” Michel told The Catholic Register.

“There was a lot of work. I enjoyed it and I made a lot of friends with choir members, students and parents. And it’s been quite humbling to be in Church for such a length of time.”

Michel came to Canada with the assistance of Msgr. John Edward Ronan, founder and director of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Choir School. This came about after the first organist at Sacred Heart Church in Peterborough passed away. The pastor at the time contacted Ronan, who had studied music in Europe, looking for a replacement. Ronan suggested they contact the Regensburg Academy in Germany. And since Michel had graduated at the top of his class, he was selected by the school to come to Canada.

He was placed at Sacred Heart Church in Peterborough, where he worked as organist and choir director for 33 years. He then took on the same roles at St. Peter-in-Chains (pictured) - and he’s still going strong.He was placed at Sacred Heart Church in Peterborough, where he worked as organist and choir director for 33 years. He then took on the same roles at St. Peter-in-Chains — and he’s still going strong.

At 80 years old, he doesn’t have any plans to stop.

“Music is part of my life,” said Michel. “You don’t want to give it up and throw it away. I feel that if I stopped playing, something would be missing… And I’m well enough to carry on.”

Ed Burke, chair of the organizing committee for the anniversary celebrations, said he’s known “Herbie” all his life.

“My earliest recollections of my parish at Sacred Heart include that of Herbie and his adult and his children’s choirs,” said Burke.

“I think he’s raised the bar when it comes to sacred music and church music and choirs — at least here in the city. I think there’s a greater appreciation for sacred music and church music in general because of Herbie.”

In fact, most of the music sung at Sacred Heart and St. Peter-in Chains was either composed or arranged by Michel.

Michel’s musical talent runs through the family. His younger daughter is a piano teacher and organist in Peterborough, while his father was an organist in his homeland. And up until a couple years ago, Michel gave both private piano and organ lessons. Suzanne is also a music teacher.

Throughout his time in Canada, Michel has received his share of honours.

“In 1981, he was bestowed the honour of Papal Order of St. Sylvester, given primarily for outstanding contributions to the Catholic Church,” said Burke. “And in this instance, it was for his contributions to liturgical music in the Peterborough diocese.”

More recently, he was inducted into Peterborough’s Pathway of Fame, an honour that pays tribute to the Peterborough area’s arts and culture contributors.

De Angelis said during the eight years he’s served as bishop in Peterborough, he has witnessed Michel’s outstanding service to the diocese.

“I am a witness of so many people who spoke to me saying how much they appreciate the dedication of this man who, through music skills and liturgical hymns that they select, they attract people to the Church and they help people to pray.”

De Angelis called Michel a great man, adding, “God knows where he finds the energy.”

Peterborough’s vicar general Fr. Joseph Moran, who was rector at St. Peter-in-Chains for five years, said people loved working with Michel — whether they were singers or musicians.

“He’s such a professional musician and he can do anything with an organ and with other musicians,” said Moran.

And he has done a great service to a lot of the people in Peterborough as he’s played at most of the area’s Catholic churches for diocesan celebrations such as ordinations and anniversary celebrations, said Moran.

After all these years, Michel still really enjoys his work.

“I think I made the right decision to stay here for 60 years,” he said.

Comments (2)

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He taught me organ and piano, guided me through a number of kiwanis festivals and endeared me to the keyboards. I even played church organ from time to time -- but it was "his" pipe organ at the cathedral in the south end that I remember best....

He taught me organ and piano, guided me through a number of kiwanis festivals and endeared me to the keyboards. I even played church organ from time to time -- but it was "his" pipe organ at the cathedral in the south end that I remember best. Wonderful memories.

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Memories of music lessons

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