PEI

Meet P.E.I.'s gentle giant with a heavenly voice

Meet P.E.I.'s gentle giant with the heavenly voice. For more than four decades, Allan MacLean has sung in the choir at St. Peter's Cathedral in Charlottetown.

'He's big in his heart, as well as his mind and body'

'Really, if I'm singing the day that I die, I'd be quite happy with that,' says Allan MacLean. (Pat Martel/CBC)

A towering figure sits alone on a choir bench in St. Peter's Cathedral in Charlottetown.

Dressed in long black and white choir robes, 68-year-old Allan MacLean crouches forward, holding a magnifying glass to his hymn book.

His powerful bass-baritone voice fills the church when he begins to sing one of his favourite hymns, O Come, O Come Emmanuel.  

'People tell me that they miss having me in the choir and that makes me feel very wonderful,' says MacLean. 'I'm very glad and very grateful for the things they say to me but I do miss the choir.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

"When I sing, especially in the choir, I have to say quite frankly that singing actually provides an emotional release for me," MacLean said. 

And that release comes because of the meaning he finds in the music.

"Singing proper church music takes the words and expresses those words to an extent far beyond that to which the words themselves can give expression." 

But medical problems have kept the him out of the choir for the past year and his hearing is going, which can be devastating for a singer who needs to stay in tune. 

'I do miss the choir'

"I have had people tell me that they miss having me in the choir and that makes me feel very wonderful," he said. "I'm very glad and very grateful for the things they say to me but I do miss the choir." 

'A gentle giant is probably the best way to put it, because he's tall,' says Alan Reesor, who taught MacLean music at UPEI. 'He's big in his heart, as well as his mind and body.' (Pat Martel/CBC)

MacLean is soon joined at St. Peter's by his friend Alan Reesor, the church's former organist of 44 years and choir leader up until two years ago. 

'We sing up a storm in there'

Reesor also headed the music department at UPEI, where he taught MacLean back in the 1970s. "Very good student, had perfect pitch, could do theory problems out of his head."

These days the two sing on the sidelines at St. Peter's Cathedral. "He sits in the congregation near to where I sit," Reesor said. "It's good, we sing up a storm in there."

Reesor is urging MacLean to get a hearing aid. "I just hope he can get the hearing problem fixed up and get back into the choir again where he really belongs".

Allan MacLean uses a magnifying glass to see the tiny print in his hymn book. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Reesor has known MacLean almost his whole adult life, and says he's a gentle soul. "He doesn't fight with anybody. If somebody is insulting, is nasty, he walks away. He is very gentle."

MacLean is also a giant, standing at six feet six inches and weighing almost 330 pounds. "A gentle giant is probably the best way to put it, because he's tall," Reesor said. "He's big in his heart, as well as his mind and body."

'Honoured that people say that of me'

The description suits MacLean just fine. "I like it. I really I do."

His gentle manner and large size has suited him well with the jobs he's held over the decades. "I spent 40 years dealing with the general public, both as a clerk in a hotel where I worked at nights and of course you have to be very patient in dealing with people and very diplomatic," MacLean said.

'St. Peter's Cathedral is basically just my home,' says MacLean about his beloved church. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"I also spent some time working at the Legion as a doorman and that particular characteristic worked very well for me. So I'm really honoured that people say that of me, that I'm a gentle giant."

But there was one job MacLean had little patience for — teaching in the school system. "For me, it was horrible," MacLean said.

"I think I was too naive because you really have to live for your students, live the lives of your students and be ready to do that in order to be a teacher, and I have to admit, at that time of my life I wasn't ready to do that."

MacLean was also teased back then. "They gave me the nickname Sherlock, largely because of a great coat I wore and a sheepskin hat that I wore in the wintertime," he said. 

MacLean now uses a walker to get around after a recent fall that badly injured his knee. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"That was just a bit of good natured teasing. But I didn't really see it that way at the time."

MacLean moved onto another job for a couple of years, pumping gas at a local service station.

Often he'd be heard singing or rehearsing the readings he still does on Sunday mornings.

MacLean accepts that some people may have found it a bit strange. "But then I've been quite accustomed to being just a little bit different anyway so that really didn't bother me all that much."

MacLean studied music at UPEI in the 1970s. (Pat Martel/CBC)

'Just my home'

MacLean lives just a block from St. Peter's Cathedral, which is fortunate because he recently hurt his knee badly after a fall. Now he trudges inch-by-inch with a walker, not wanting to miss a chance to sing at his beloved church. "St. Peter's Cathedral is basically just my home."

And just how much longer does he think he'll be singing? "I haven't really thought about it," he said. But after a moment of thought, it comes to him.

"Really, if I'm singing the day that I die, I'd be quite happy with that."  

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About the Author

Pat Martel has worked with CBC P.E.I. for three decades, mostly with Island Morning where he was a writer-broadcaster and producer. He joined the web team recently to share his passion for great video. Pat also runs an adult coed soccer league in Stratford. He retired in Oct. 2019.

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