The Homily Party
I think it started back in the mid '80s when Ben Discipio was music director.
But 100 years before that, there was an immigration from French speaking Canada, mainly Québec and certain parts of New Brunswick to Boston's North Shore. My mother's family settled with others in Lynn where they promptly built a new church St. Jean-Baptiste and the first church organization formed was the men's choir followed later by the school K-12.
Fast forward to the early 1950s. Albert Gingras is the choir director and he fed the men's choir from the high school's mixed voice glee club (a 50's name for a high school concert chorus). Besides having musical talent (you were auditioned), your voice had to have changed completely. With me and for most males, it was around 15 years old. To say that music was prominent at St. Jean's would be an understatement. There was also a series of girls choirs directed by Sister Mary Piano Teacher (her name escapes me). You could be excused from any class during the day if there was a music rehearsal.
Anyhow, the men's choir was serious about music but that didn't mean we were monastic; we had our lighter moments. When I first joined, Monseigneur William E. Drapeau was pastor. He had a black and white colored Boxer dog named Blackie. Blackie and Monsigneur had two things in common. They were both black and white and both had these huge jowls on the sides of their faces. When they walked down the street, they looked like Father (forgive the pun) and son. Moving along, Monseigneur Drapeau came from a prominent well-to-do French-Canadian family. Once a year, he took the choir members and their wives to Spraycliffe in Marblehead. Spraycliffe was a private banquet facility overlooking the harbor. We'd start the evening's festivities with cocktails, Manhattans or Martinis (seems these were the drugs of choice for Canadian American choristers). The main course would follow with lobster - stuffed, boiled, broiled - or filet mignon. After eating, we'd serenade the invited clergy and our wives with old favorites before heading home.
La Confederation Des Chorales Canadiennes-Americaines
In the late '50s, Georges Ayotte decided to sponsor a competition of all Canadian men's choirs in New England. The event was to take place at Channel 9,WMUR TV in Manchester, NH. Georges was the director of what he thought, rightfully so, one of the best choir is in New England. He expected to win the competition running away.
Although Georges directed the choir, I believe he made his fortune in real estate. Georges was a rarity among Canadian Americans: he was an extremely wealthy man. He stood about six-foot two, in his early 50s, just starting to look prosperous but not fat. He dressed in custom tailored suits, drove a late model gray Cadillac, and had a pencil thin mustache that I usually associate with a Latino. To make a short story shorter, about 15 choirs showed up from as far away as Biddeford, ME, Pawtucket, RI, and Fall River, MA. The competition took place a year before I was eligible to join the choir so most of what I'm relating is secondhand.
Not only did St. Jean's take the honors but, blew the competition away so decisively, that it was never held again.
Georges Ayotte, however, still believed that the perpetuation of Canadian-American men’s choirs was a good thing, so a year or so later, he and Philippe A. Lajoie (you had to say his name with the 'A' firmly in place), a Canadian-American composer of note formed the confederation of Canadian-American choirs.
The confederation gathered once the year in convention, first in Worcester, then in Lowell. 300 to 400 men from different groups attended. We usually had a short rehearsal for music we had learned individually, followed by an even shorter church service, then we filled up the rest of the day into the evening with conviviality in the main hall. There was singing, drinking, banqueting, drinking, more singing, and, -- did I mention? -- drinking. I have no memory of the food served but clearly recall table upon table of Manhattans or Martinis. Most choristers drank the Manhattans. I only recall Gene Legere with a martini (an acquired taste, I think, because at that time, to me, they tasted like gasoline).
Fueled with 80 or so proof, groups would usually semi organize and sing their favorites. As a youngster roaming through the hall, I was thrilled with the quality, spontaneity, and enthusiasm of the singers. There was even an impromptu quartet I heard singing in the men's room stalls. What a way to relieve oneself with live vocals in the background!
I should mention some of the more colorful members the Confederation. Besides Georges Ayotte, there was Sparky, the oldest member of George's group, an octogenarian who sang like a Nightingale and could drink anyone under the table. He was short, squat, and rosy cheeked. There was also an organist from Fall River named Eugene Letendre, a true virtuoso, and gifted with ESP. He foresaw Pope John XXIII's council and its subsequent reforms as the death knell for traditional, classical oriented music, and, men's choirs, in particular.
My favorite character, however, had to be Herve Lemieux, director of 'Les Gais Chanteurs' of Pawtucket, RI. He stood a lean 5' 8" and, besides his unbridled enthusiasm, had a gravelly voice probably brought on by three or four packs of cigarettes a day. The voice was as distinctive as the Celtic's Johnny Most. No matter where he was, he was heard. He always reminded me of the character of Fezziwig in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol".
My two favorite memories of these conventions involve carrying the wounded off the battlefield on their shields. Billy C., a baritone, should've been a second Tenor, was feeling no particular pain as we drove home after one convention in Lowell. Upon arrival at his house, we hoisted him up on our shoulders and marched into the house singing a rousing chorus of "Prends Un P'tit Coup". Into the living room we strode, and there, sitting around the coffee table sipping tea, were Billy's wife Eva and several members of our clergy including the local Bishop. The cold, frost filled silence stopped us dead in our tracks. We quickly set Billy onto the carpet and exited hastily stage left.
Eva didn't speak to us for months.
The other memory involved Duff A. At our annual choir Christmas party, Duff was usually asked to sing "Bonhomme, Bonhomme", a French song similar to "Old MacDonald", but a song about musical instruments instead of animals. The last convention of the Confederation took place at the French Club in Lowell. We had the usual cocktail hours and banquet. They expected so many members that Georges Ayotte rented a sound system complete with microphone for those who would be guest speaking that evening. After the parade of speakers had finished, I approached Georges and asked if Duff could lead the crowd in "Bonhomme, Bonhomme". He readily agreed, gave me the mic, and I gave it to Duff. It was great, Duff singing the verses and over 400 men harmonizing the refrain. Wow... standing ovation! However -- -- -- what a mistake I had made. Feeling little pain to begin with, this ovation only encouraged Duff to begin a medley of his favorite tunes that nobody knew and then, like a comic on an early 50s TV variety show, he started trying to do impressions of famous people of the day. What originally was fun turned into embarrassment. I commandeered Dave Martel and two others from our group and carried Duff from the stage to hoots and mammoth applause.
Needless to say, Duff didn't speak to me for months either.
Anyhow, Albert Gingras developed MS and had to retire, but not before composing 2 French masses and several motets for the choir. Motets, by the way, are four-part very short pieces usually sung at the Offertory or Communion portion of the Mass.
During Albert Gingras' illness, my uncle Ted Dupuis took over as interim director. Ted's greatest accomplishment was adding the PP (very soft singing) to the choir's dynamics. About the halcion choir days, my cousin Richard was once heard to remark, rightfully so, that we were choir of different degrees of loud. Ted taught us the value of subito piano (suddenly singing very quiet) and the decrescendo (going gradually from loud to soft).
Later, John Pellerin took over as permanent director. And, later directors included Ben Discipio, myself, and Gerry Gagnon.
Enough of rambling tangents, already, let's get back to the main story.
I'm not sure whether Ray Gagnon, a fellow second Tenor, or I started it. Be it as it may, one of us brought a bottle of Bailey's to midnight mass one year when Ben Discipio was directing and Father Philleas LeFevre was the pastor. Father LeFevre was known for his rambling, lengthy sermons, so, in order to use the time favorably, we exited the door of the choir loft onto the mezzanine landing. We put a good dent in the bottle, had sparkling conversation, and, an otherwise merry old-time until the sermon mercifully ended...mercifully for the congregation.
The second Christmas Eve, it was VO, glasses, ginger ale, and mixed nuts. Don LeBlanc also from our section joined us -- we were three.
Third year was more elaborate with cousin Joe Dupuis joining in the festivities. Besides the liquor, there was a shrimp ring, cocktail sauce, Petits Fours, chicken wings, and salad stuff like celery, carrots, and broccoli sticks with sour cream dip.
The fourth year was like a banquet. We needed 2 tables for all the food. There were six of us, and then Ben came out to join us.
WOOPS, we almost screwed up as Father LeFevre ended the sermon and we weren't there in time for the Offertory. We came trotting into the choir loft with pissed-off looks from the more conservative and older members of the choir who hadn't joined us.
Suffice it to say, there was an impending revolution once we got back together after Christmas break. We gave our solemn oaths that it would end here -- and thus it did.
Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
(Thus passes the glory of the world).