I have played two of the largest pipe organs in Canada in the past two days! I haven’t talked about my music lately, but I’ve been playing piano and pipe organ since elementary and middle school. As I’ve been traveling, I haven’t played either much—in fact, it had been 13 months since I last played an organ. When I arrived in Toronto at the beginning of the month, I looked online for the largest organs in town, and over the past three Sundays I attended services at those churches.
All three organs were built by Casavant Frères, a world-renowned organ builder located in Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec. Each organ has more than 6,000 pipes, and the “newest” of the three was completed in 1933. Because of this rich history, I knew my Sunday mornings in Toronto would be special!
St. Paul’s Bloor Street
All three of the churches I wanted to check out had service times of 11 a.m. on Sunday, so I randomly picked St. Paul’s Anglican Church first—known to locals as St. Paul’s Bloor Street. Getting there proved to be a bit of a challenge. I took my usual bus to the nearby subway station and once we all got off the bus to transfer to the train, we realized the station was closed for weekend maintenance. I still have a lot to learn about big cities and public transit. (Always plan for extra time!) I didn’t initially see the replacement shuttle buses, so I started walking down Bloor Street. “Uh oh, three more miles to go and it says it’s going to take me about an hour. Church starts in 30 minutes!” After walking a few blocks, I found a shuttle, hopped on board, and was dumped at the next subway station for the rest of the route.
I arrived at St. Paul’s right as the Classic Service was beginning. (Side note: churches usually refer to service types as traditional and contemporary; but after hearing the word classical used, I’m going to start using it myself.) I ended up basically walking in with the choir. The sanctuary is huge, and I sat in one of the right-side sections. I didn’t have a direct view of everything happening at the altar area, but there were giant screens on both sides for us to see better.
The organ was so loud and powerful. It was great to hear two different organists during the service—the Classical Music Director, who also directed the choir, and an organ scholar. They took turns throughout the service.
I really enjoyed the whole service. It was my first time at an Anglican church. Great sermon, great music, and very great to see people of many races and backgrounds attending. Some fun things to note: every few minutes there would be a low rumble from a subway train beneath. There was a Blessing of the Backpacks, which at first I thought was a bit odd, but it just meant kids came up front with their backpacks where a special Back to School prayer was given.
There was a church lunch after the service, but I chose to wander down the street to the Bata Shoe Museum instead. What a quirky museum to visit—and best of all, it’s free on Sundays!
Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
I was better prepared getting to the second church—Timothy Eaton Memorial Church, part of the United Church of Canada. From my apartment, I only had to walk about a quarter mile to a bus which took me 2.5 miles directly to the church.
Because I actually got to church early this time, I was able to look around, take photos, and meet the lead pastor who greeted me at my pew. As expected, the organ sounded awesome. They had a small, but mighty choir who honestly sounded like angels. Top it off with one of the best sermons I’ve heard in years, and I’m so glad I attended.
After worship, I greeted the pastor again and told him I enjoyed his sermon and the choir. I mentioned that I’m an organist but have been traveling and haven’t played in over a year. “Eric, stay for our BBQ lunch outside and I’ll introduce you to our organist! He’s really cool with the organ; I’m sure he’ll let you play it sometime.” Exciting!
I was introduced to their organist, and we scheduled a time for me to come back to church and practice. That day was today! I spent an hour playing the grand Casavant organ—and I even recorded a piece! I’ll post it on my music site very soon.
Metropolitan United Church
I visited the final church this past Sunday—Metropolitan United Church, another member of the United Church of Canada. It’s referred to as “The Cathedral of Kindness” and the people I spoke with were just that.
Met United is also home to Canada’s largest pipe organ. With 8,333 pipes and 500 miles of wire, their Casavant organ, built in 1933, had such complex, rich sounds.
I walked up to the front of church to see the organ after the service, just as another group approached the Minister of Music at the organ. I quickly introduced myself and he gave us all the history of the organ and showed us what it can all do. Once the other group left, he looked at me and said “Do you want to play something? Have a seat!” Uh, yes! I pulled out the hymnal and looked for one of my favorites, Holy God, We Praise Your Name. It’s a simple melody but I just love it. He picked the sound settings, and I played a hymn verse. After 13 months of not having played a pipe organ, it all came right back!
Getting to see and hear these organs over the past three Sundays has really renewed my love for church and organ music, and I can’t wait to get back into it again. My new strategy as I continue my travels is to seek out the big churches. The big pipe organs. Everyone in the church music community is so welcoming and kind. I can’t wait to continue my journey of discovering great pipe organs.
I created a photo gallery of favorites from my visits to Toronto’s three largest pipe organs. Enjoy!