50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
The following is a reprint from the Lowell Sun which did a nice story on our Chorus and its 50th Anniversary celebration. We thank Sun writer David Perry for his fine story. The story was printed on 10-25-98.
Some groups need others to sing their praises, but one week from today, the Franco American Male Chorus will sing its own. On November 1 at 2:00 p.m. at St. Marie Church in Lowell, the group will celebrate its 50th anniversary with a memorial mass, followed by a luncheon at the Knickerbocker Club. For current and past members alike, it will be walk down a musical memory lane that has seen performances for spiritual gatherings, benefits, memorial services, on television and more than 750 weddings. And the members will look on with special interest when John Glenn returns to space on Oct. 29, as they performed for and with Glenn in New Hampshire during his 1983 presidential run.
While the group currently boasts membership of 23, more than 200 past members and their families are expected to celebrate the half-century mark. Still, one key ingredient will be missing - the group's founder, former Lowell Mayor George Ayotte, who died August 13 at age 91. The group began as an off-shoot of the Ste. Jeanne d'Arc Choir and over the years has included 120 total members.
"Originally, it was formed to maintain a high sense of idealism and values built around music," says Bob Gaudette, a 48-year member and the group's director, who took the baton from Ayotte in 1977. "And another part of it was to keep the French language strong."
While the group is not associated with a church, it renders both sacred and secular music. The Chorus can sing a Latin mass, croon pop and Broadway tunes, and when the UMass Lowell Riverhawks opened their hockey season at Tsongas Areana last week, they sang the U.S. national anthem in English and followed with the Canadian anthem in French.
There were three tours of Canada - the 1952 tour included a stop at St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal - they were the first U.S. male chorus to sing there. In the 60's, the Chorus performed weekly on a Franco-American program on New Hampshire TV, and in 1968, they sang at New York's St. Peter and Paul Cathedrals. They've performed at Franco American and Irish Cultural Week celebrations and along side the U.S.S. Constitution, as well as benefits in the Lowell and Salem areas.
Gaudette says the group sang at a politcal function for Glenn, who was such a singing fanatic "you could barely get him to stop. He has a helluva voice, a real barbershopper. His campaign contacted us to do stuff with him, but we couldn't, it would just have been too much." Gaudette still receives Christmas cards from the former Ohio senator.
Gaudette puts the Chorus's mission succinctly - "Serving through song." But it has also evolved into a social brotherhood, in which members from all walks of life share the bonds of friendship. "There have been a lot of good times," say Gaudette. "We practice every week and have outings like going to Spinners games. Part of the reason we stay together and get along so well is that we make these family outings, with wives."
According to members, joining the Chorus is very much of a family initiation, with sons following in fathers' footsteps. Sixty-six-year-old Joe Harvey of Dracut, one of just two charter members remaining(the other in Andy St.Gelais) joined while in high school. "I used to go listen to them with my dad, who used to hang around with George Ayotte," says Harvey. "Its hard to get guys who are dedicated to something like this. We rehearse every week, unless there's a real bad snowstorm. It doesn't stay together as well if you don't rehearse.": Harvey didn't have any trouble passing the torch - his son, Rick, is also a member.
Gaudette, 63, was also brought to the Chorus by his father, and three of his sons sing with the group, too. Founder Ayotte's son, Rene, is assistant director. Now, says Harvey and Gaudette, the requirements for membership are two - to love music and be willing to serve the community. "At one time," says Gaudette,"you had to be of French heritage to be part of the group. And then, years ago, membership dwindled to about a dozen or so. That was in the 60s, and we decided to open it up to everyone who loves music. But we maintained the name. Back then, it wasn't exactly the "in"" thing to do, either. It wasn't cool." A Lowell native, who now lives in Salem, NH., Gaudette owns the Future Supply Corp. a small chemical company based in Londonderry, NH.
Weddings are now limited to about 15 per year, but Harvey recalls a physician who hired the Chorus to sing at the weddings of all four of his daughters. "They just kept asking us back."
By their nature, the arrangements the group sings exclude women, but there is a female constant - Fleurette Sheehy, who has been the Male Choir's accompanist on the piano and organ for 24 years. "I love music and what we do is so meaningful." says "Flo" Sheehy. "It's a great way to show talent to people." Sheehy, who also accompanies the Spindle City Singers, says her father's heart was never far from the group he founded. " It was a big part of his life. And I was so honored to be able to take over for my mother. But he would always discuss music with me, he loved music. Music was his life."
"Originally," says Gaudette, "it was planned for May, but George was not doing good. And then he bounced back. I went to see him and I told him, we're gonna do this big, George. But now, we'll do it anyhow."
The following is a transcript of a City of Lowell Proclamation which was issued by Lowell Mayor Eileen M. Donohue:
To the members of the Franco American Male Chorus:
It is with great pleasure that I congratulate you upon your 50th Anniversary of providing outstanding entertainment to our community and to the surrounding towns.
For the past 50 years, your presence has uplifted many entertaining nights for residents here in the City of Lowell. Your appearance at numerous events in this community, and in particular your dedication to participating in Irish Cultural Week each year, is very much appreciated. I commend your devotion and thank each of you for sharing your talent with the entire community.
I fondly honor the memory of former Mayor George Ayotte, whose outstanding foresight and determination started the young male chorus in 1948. Through the years, this group has evolved. You have been an outstanding asset to the community over the past 50 years and I wish you many more years of success.