Canadian choir to get early audience with new pope

More than 180 children from St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto are scheduled to have an audience with the new pope in Rome in April, one of the first after he is elected.
St. Michael's Choir performs in Toronto in December 2012. The choir has an audience April 10 with the new pope. (CBC)

More than 180 children from St. Michael’s Choir School in Toronto are scheduled to have an audience with the new pope in Rome in April, one of the first after he is elected.

The students, in Grades 5-12, may also have the opportunity to sing for the new pope, but plans for a performance are awaiting confirmation by the Vatican.

The boys-only choir is confirmed to sing a mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, to an audience of Vatican officials and 25 Grade 12 boys are to sing at an evening prayer service or vespers in St. Peter's the same day.

"It's a huge honour," says Stephen Handrigan, director of St. Michael's Choir School. "Very few choirs get the opportunity to sing at a mass in the Vatican."

The mass involves intense training for the boys, who must sing a cappella in the Gregorian tradition. One boy will also perform solo, singing the responsorial psalm. They will not get an opportunity to rehearse in the huge, cavernous space of St. Peter's, Handrigan told CBC News.

"The challenge is the sense of awe you have when walking in because really you feel like a speck of dust," he says.

The Archbishop of Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins is to accompany them on their trip to Rome.

St. Michael’s Choir School is a semi-private boys’ school that trains the choir for Toronto’s St. Michael’s Cathedral and regularly supplies cantors and other musical talent for churches throughout the city.

As part of celebrations for the school’s 75th anniversary, an 11-day trip to Italy has been planned that includes stops in Florence and Rome. The choir travels every year, but the trip to Italy has been in the works for the past two years.

More than 300 people, including parents and teachers, are travelling together on the ambitious tour, which will cost about $1.2 million. Money has been raised through donors and fund-raising.

Originally the choir was scheduled to meet and sing before Pope Benedict XVI, but his surprise resignation earlier this month meant a change of plans. The Vatican aims to select a new pontiff by Easter, so the choirboys will be among the earliest to meet the new pope.

Their audience with the pope is scheduled for April 10, just a little more than a week after Easter. It is one of two planned audiences that week in which people may meet the pope and takes place in an audience hall just off St. Peter's.

The choir also had made plans to sing in the Sistine Chapel, but that part of their itinerary is awaiting Vatican approval. The Sistine Chapel will be closed off for the conclave and the boys may not know if they are to perform there until they arrive in Rome.

The choir school will be in Rome from April 7-11.

The trip to Italy also includes:

  • A performance at Sacro Cuore Church in Florence.
  • A mass at St. Patrick’s Church in Rome, the parish associated with the Archbishop of Toronto.
  • A mass at the Canadian Martyr’s Church hosted by the Pontifical Canadian College where Canadian priests study in Rome.  
  • A concert at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music.

St. Michael’s Choir School is one of six international organizations affiliated with the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music. School founder Father John Edward Ronan studied at the institute in the 1930s.

School alumni include actor and singer Michael Burgess, tenor John McDermott, opera star Michael Schade, concert pianist Stewart Goodyear and keyboardist Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies.