The Sunday Magazine

Coventry Cathedral's new director of music is a young organist from Canada

Rachel Mahon first got a taste for the organ when she was growing up in the west end of Toronto. She’s since played at some of the world’s great churches and cathedrals. Now she’s going to be the first Canadian Music Director at the storied Coventry Cathedral in England.

Rachel Mahon is the first woman and first Canadian to hold the position

Coventry Cathedral was destroyed during the Second World War. After its reconstruction was completed in 1962, funds from Canada went toward the Cathedral's new organ. (Coventry Cathedral/Facebook)
Rachel Mahon is about to assume the role of Director of Music at Coventry Cathedral. (Graham Lacdao)

When German bombers attacked the British city of Coventry in November 1940, one of England's most beautiful cathedrals lay in ruins. Also lost in the bombing was the cathedral's massive organ, boasting thousands of individually crafted pipes.

Afterwards, the city decided to rebuild the cathedral — a project that was completed in 1962. And thanks to vigorous fundraising efforts by Canadian organists, the cathedral's massive organ was also rebuilt. So, it seems quite fitting that a Canadian musician is about to assume the role of Director of Music at Coventry Cathedral.

At 30, Rachel Mahon is the first woman and first Canadian to hold the position. She is among the handful of female music directors at England's 50-odd cathedrals.

"I think I've been very, very, lucky, very blessed in the positions that I've had," said Mahon during a conversation with The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright. "I am very grateful for where I've ended up."

Mahon grew up in Toronto's west end and started singing when she was very young. She took piano lessons from her mother and sang in the church choir.

The inner workings of the 5000-pipe organ at Coventry Cathedral. (Coventry Cathedral/Facebook)

"I was always around the organ," she said. " it didn't occur to me until I was a teenager — I thought, oh well maybe I'll try organ. And it just kind of stuck."

She studied music at the University of Toronto before she made her way to England to perfect her skills as an organist. In 2014, she became Organ Scholar at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, England, making history as the first female organist on staff in its 1,400-year history.

Mahon has been with Coventry Cathedral since 2018. Besides her appointment and the Canadian fundraising efforts to rebuild the organ, the cathedral has another connection to Canada, she said.

Some of the gleaming pipes of the Coventry Cathedral organ. (Coventry Cathedral/Facebook)

"After the cathedral was destroyed, Canada donated not only money towards the building of the organ, but they also donated the ceiling of the cathedral, which is Canadian cedar. So there are these links with Canada," said Mahon. "And at the back of the cathedral, at the West End, there is a big bronze maple leaf on the floor, as a sort of testament and to say thank you, which is really, really great."

Mahon's solo debut album exclusively features the work of Canadian musicians — Healey Willan, Gerald Bales, Ruth Watson Henderson and Rachel Laurin. She explained why.

"I think it's really important for any kind of program or album to have a vision or a narrative almost. And the whole point of this album was to highlight the Canadian connection with Coventry," said Mahon.

She added that Canadian organ music hasn't had much prominence and this album will introduce more people to it.

"I hope that it piques the curiosity of more Canadians," she said.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

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