In the early stages of drawing up the blueprints for Ascension of Our Lord Church, selecting an organ was one of the priorities.
Early parish records show that the wardens and Father McDonagh contacted the St. Hyacinthe company of Casavant Frères to discuss building an instrument to suit the architectural and acoustical qualities of this new church. Several designs were considered before determining the final stoplist in the contract signed in May 1929. This would be one of the last instruments whose design, construction and installation was overseen by the Casavant brothers, Claver and Samuel. The organ case and console shell were designed by the lead architect of the church, E. J. Turcotte, and the console carvings were executed by Elzéar Soucy.
On January 13, 1930 the inaugural concert was played by Québec‑born Lynwood Farnham.
At the time, he was organist at New York’s Church of the Holy Communion and is considered one of the world’s finest organists of that time. To this day, he remains a legendary figure in organ history. Lynwood Farnham was particularly fond of Casavant’s instruments. He said that nothing could be more comfortable than a Casavant to play, as it left him free to register exactly in every department as he desired. He succumbed to cancer on November 23, just ten months after his inauguration of the new instrument at Ascension of Our Lord.
On November 17, 1930, the Parish held a second concert, this time featuring Pietro Yon, the titular organist of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Pietro Yon was the composer of the well-known Christmas piece, Gésu bambino, and just a few years earlier, had been named the honorary organist of the Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican.
During 1950 and 1951 the parish held a number of organ recitals sponsored by the Conrad Letendre Group, which featured the elite of Montreal’s organists Gaston Arel, Raymond Daveluy, Kenneth Gilbert and Bernard Lagacé.
The organ at Ascension consists of 56 stops divided among its 4 manual and pedal divisions.
It combines the finest traits of the orchestral organ (an organ‑building movement in Britain and North America in the early twentieth century) and English organ building. Its orchestral aspects are exemplified by its generous collection of warm foundation stops, most of which are enclosed and under expression, that blend warmly and which are voiced in a manner typical of British organs of that time — five 16′ flue stops, twenty 8′ flue stops and seven 8′ reed stops — providing a rich tonal palette. The Solo division, under high pressure, houses an English tuba, Viole d’orchestre, Violes célestes, Octave Viol and Cornet de violes — rare gems, indeed. These are activated by many performer-operated controls at the instrument’s exquisite vintage console: a full complement of unison, sub and super couplers for all the manuals and pedal, an adjustable combination action with a wealth of pistons, and four expression boxes to change the volume of each division independently.
One of the most striking qualities of the organ is the successful marriage of instrument and acoustic. The church’s acoustics are warm and generous and the organ’s tone, volume and projection into the church are at once clear and amply bathed in the building’s lively reverberation. These aspects of the instrument — its orchestral aesthetic and English character — along with its size, quality and placement in a sonorous and ambient acoustic, make this instrument a unique and important instrument in Montreal’s thriving organ culture.
Since its installation in 1929, the instrument has undergone three major renovations: 1972‑81 and 1989 under François Caron, and 2006‑11 by Les Orgues Baumgarten.
For many years, the deterioration of the instrument was becoming evident. As the 2010s drew to a close, many components had reached the end of their lifespan and major malfunctions and mechanical failures were surfacing. It became apparent that another significant renovation of the organ was needed. Thanks to generous donations to our Capital Campaign, the
restoration of the console and installation of a new blower were undertaken in the summer of 2020.
Choir Directors & Organists at Ascension of Our Lord
1928–1956: Joseph Brassard, Choirmaster 1927–1965: J.E. Savaria, Organist
In 1927, the wardens hired the first organist, Joseph Elie Savaria. The choirmaster was Joseph Arsène Brassard who directed the choirs at the Parish for the next 28 years.
1965–1972: Lucienne L’Heureux‑Arel, Organist 1969–1972: B. Poliquin, Choirmaster
In 1967, Father Edward Lapointe, with Father Peter Timmins, was determined to encourage and maintain the traditional music of the church. The titular organist of the time was Lucienne L’Heureux‑Arel. She worked with a choirmaster and the parish hired professional soloists to develop a mixed choir. She and her husband, Gaston Arel, have devoted their lives to the service of the church and Montreal’s organ community. To this day, Mme. Arel continues to serve the parish of St‑Léon as organiste titulaire.
1972–1990: Phillips Motley, Choirmaster & Organist 1991–2002: Philip Schaus, Music Director & Organist
Phillips Motley was choirmaster and organist for the parish from 1972 until his retirement in 1990. He was one of Montreal’s musical patriarchs. Not only did he serve many parishes as organist and choirmaster since the 1930s, he was also one of the Royal Canadian College of Organists—Montreal Centre’s longest serving presidents and a much-respected and beloved organ teacher of renown in this city.
In 1991, the board of the Fabrique hired Phillip Schauss. He played at weekly church services as well as directing the choir. In 2002, he was diagnosed with Huntington’s disease, a rare genetic neurological disorder which has no cure. Phillip retired from his position at Ascension in 2003.
2003–present: David Szanto, Director of Music & Organist
David Szanto joined the parish as Director of Music and Organist in 2003. Throughout his tenure, he has sought to energize the vibrancy of the choir and the parish’s liturgical music. Hand‑in‑hand with our visionary pastors, the enterprise of our parish leaders and resourcefulness of our ministry of faith education, David Szanto has built a dynamic music ministry worthy of the growing vitality of our parish in the community.