The train from the Town of Mount Royal to Central Station takes less than ten minutes. It travels in a straight line from the center of what was once called “Model City” to a hole at the foot of the “mountain” where there is a brief stop and then the train is swallowed and eventually finds the platform under Central Station in the heart of downtown Montreal. I was always amazed that this hole went right under the mountain and came out the other side. I would stay up at night and think about how they might have achieved this. I think my one way fare as a student was 10 cents. Maybe 15. It was a while back.
Some of my most vivid and fondest memories of my childhood are of that train. At ten years old, My parents were trusting enough in me and in society to let me go downtown by myself. I was required to go to choir practice at Christ Church Cathedral on Tuesdays and Thursdays after school. I also had to go early on Sundays before the service.
I was one of six charter members of the boy’s choir which started in 1966 the same year Montreal got it’s Metro. At its peak the boy’s choir had around 24 choristers who came from various parts of the city to sing. There were several from Town of Mount Royal and at least one from Ville St. Laurent (one stop past TMR). Many came from “the Point” (Point St. Charles) or “Little Burgundy” and Verdun. These last three neighbourhoods could be described as “inner city” or “disadvantaged” although I knew nothing of that as a young boy. We were all just “kids”.
Sunday morning was my favourite commute. There was hardly anyone on the train or at Central station and there was no Sunday shopping, so there were no shoppers along the boutique lined passageways of Place Ville Marie which had been built in 1962, so was relatively new when I frequented these passageways.
The rays of the sweep light atop Place Ville Marie were visible from my home and kept a steady beat in the sky. I loved watching it while lying on my back in the back yard accompanied by the smell of apple blossoms in Spring, thick honeysuckle and ripening apples in summer and dead leaves and rotting windfalls in fall. I am trying to recollect a winter memory of ozone and damp wool, but given Canadian winters I doubt if I lay in the back yard after dark. I saw the light anyways from my bed. Sweep…..sweep……sweep….sleep.
Exiting PVM on Cathcart street, I made my way to University Street (now named Robert-Bourassa after a politician who had not yet become Premier of Quebec).
I would head north on University towards Ste. Catherine Street which was essentially the core of downtown. Big department stores, delis, churches, banks. On Sunday morning the street was bare. Hardly a soul. It is how I imagine a city would look after an evacuation or a rapture. Only me and maybe a street cleaner or a stray pedestrian wearing a fedora huddled against the wind and sheets of newspaper wafting around empty curbs. Being alone in such a large desolate space made it mine. I own it to this day.
The Cathedral sits between University (Robert-Bourassa) and Union. It was usually described as the big church between Eaton’s and Morgan’s (now The Bay). The two largest department store chains in Canada. Just North of the Cathedral there was a grey stone building that housed a number of church related activities. This was attached to another building which housed offices and a hall called Fulford Hall. These buildings in turn were connected to the Cathedral itself by a long tunnel. At the end of the church service the officiant (usually the Dean) would say “let us depart in peace” and the choristers would reply “in the name of the lord” and we’d all say “amen” together and the boys would tear through the tunnel taking off our surplices, ruffs and cassocks as we flew back to the croft and gave them to be hung away for another week. We would then either go back home or go to Fulford Hall for overly sugared and milked tea and cookies depending on how we had arranged to go home.
The music we sang in church was wonderful. Motets, Anthems, hymns and psalms. I will always love this music. It has permanently altered me at a molecular level. Because the Cathedral was “high Anglican” there was a lot of very serious liturgical stuff and candle lighting and standing and sitting. Not quite incense swinging and everything in Latin, but close . We learned:The Apostle’s creed, the Nicene Creed, Benediction, bunch of stuff in Latin. My favourite being the Kyrie Eleison. Music was better for Morning Prayer than the Eucharist. Probably to keep people in the pews. The Eucharist (Holy Communion) had a part where the choir would sing softly as people went up to the Altar to receive the body and blood of Christ. Usually when everybody was done and after the officiant honked the last of the “blood” (apparently it was a sin to waste blessed wine) we would sing an anthem. Often this would be A Capella (which translates as “in the Chapel”, but means “unaccompanied”.) Being in the midst of this glorious reverberant sound of men and boys singing music that is the acme of western civilization is one of the greatest feelings I have ever had. It is easy to believe there is a God when in the middle of a good choir.
Once a month we had to sing “Evensong” so the boys would be treated to lunch and we would have some sports activity between services. Evensong was almost all music, so even though the sermon was an abbreviated rerun the music was fresh and good. My favourite restaurant that we might go to at the time was Mr. Steer which is still around. Their #2 which costs $12.25 plus GPS and TPS today, was $1.10 then. It was a steerburger and Suzy Q fries with a soft drink. The price was just before the tax cut in, so was popular with businessmen for lunch. Very clever incentive. My dad explained that to me after talking to the owner who I referred to as Mr. Steer. His real name was a very Jewish sounding name like Katz. Most of the delis in Montreal at that time were owned and run by Jewish immigrants from Europe. They probably still are, but there is more competition from the delicacies of more recent immigrants’ cuisine as well. We had to sing for our supper once at Dunn’s delicatessen. Helped the church pay for our Smoked Meat sandwiches.
Trains, music and food. The sights and sounds and smells of my youth that still affect me viscerally. Memories like these help me be grateful for such a long life well-lived.