Above and below: Philip Lavallee at the keyboard of the 1925 Casavant Freres tubular pneumatic organ. – Lucie Roy Photos

by Lucie Roy
Morinville News Correspondent

Philip Lavallee has been involved with the St. Jean Baptiste Church his whole life. For more than 30 years he has played the organ at the church. Every Sunday he can be seen tickling the ivories on the keyboard of the 1925 Casavant Freres, the company’s one-thousand-and-ninety-fifth organ.

“This organ is made for everything,” Lavallee said. “The bellows are twice the size that the organ really needs. It is the best and the biggest. The most impressive – that is what they wanted at the time.”

Of the 15 priests the church has had (Fathers Mario and Martin Jubinville make up the 14 and 15), Lavallee has provided the organ music under seven of them. When he was younger, he served mass with Father Georges Primeau and sang when Primeau was the eighth serving priest of the Catholic Church.

Lavallee said the organ is a whole story in itself. It is not a big instrument by any means, but it is not the smallest of organs. The organist said it is capable of at least 150 distinct sound combinations, most of which would never use in a church service because many do not sound good, particularly for accompanying singing.

The church installed the organ in 1925, but it is not completely original anymore. The church did two refurbishing since its installation, once in the 1940s and then around the ‘70s.

Some of it is still original. The keyboard is original – nothing has changed there, – just a few of the pipes. The organist said one of the strange things about the organ is that the church needed something that could be pumped. Electricity was not reliable when it was installed. Sometimes the power would just cut off without explanation, so they had to be able to pump the organ. It restricted the kind of instrument they were able to purchase.

“You can still pump this organ, and it still works that way,” Lavallee said of the rare tubular pneumatic organ. “There are very few of them, maybe a dozen or so in the whole of Canada. [It’s] one of the few in Alberta, maybe two or three in Alberta.”

There is nothing electronic in the old system; it is all done by the pressure of the air and bellows. Although Lavallee said it is “a nice system,” it has one problem; there are fewer and fewer people who know how to repair it when something goes wrong in the guts of the instrument.

“There is nothing really wrong with this one at this point, but if, in time, anything does go haywire with it, you are looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Lavallee said. “You would have to switch it to an electromatic system, or if someone could repair it, it would be major bucks. So every time you play this thing, you kind of hope it lasts for a few more years.”

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Self-taught organist

Lavallee has been in town most of his life. He started school at the convent, was also at the Yellow School for a couple of years, was in Vanier, and finished at Primeau when it was the high school. After Grade 12, he played the organ at the church. He was on the railroad for a few months, but there were many layoffs, and that is when he met Denise Turgeon and her organist friend who provided encouragement as he was learning to play.

Lavallee is mostly self-taught on the organ he plays on Sundays. He said he did have one hand a little bit by John Unsworth, who used to be a music teacher at the school.

“It is about 30 years ago when I was 20 that I started playing this, and it wasn’t pretty,” Lavallee said. “Parish priests and parishioners at that time must have been very indulgent because I didn’t know what I was doing on this thing. Wow, when I think back on what I used to do, it is embarrassing to think of it. I didn’t know what to do with this – just playing it more like an accordion than an organ. Now it sounds better, but you still learn things with this.”

Lavallee said there used to be a lot of organists at one time but after Sister Tarcienne Boissonnault had left St. Jean Baptiste, they started to be very few and far between. For a time there was no music at Masses at all. That is one of the reasons that for a few years Lavallee used to go to church and solo masses with other instruments, but hauling it all back and forth when they had something like the organ sitting there didn’t make sense. He figured if he tinkered long enough he might get to know how to use it. Once that happened, the job just fell in his lap; no one else wanted it.

Like learning the organ, Lavallee said his singing is largely self-taught. He did not learn to sing – he just opened his mouth and sang. Though he has never been formally taught, he did do some singing in school plays with Sister Majeau. He started singing in church when he was 7 or 8 years old.

Lavallee said he is an only child. His mother Edna, one of four Caouette siblings, was born in a house in Morinville. The midwife, Madame Rondeau, was her grandmother and Lavallee’s great-grandmother. Lavallee’s father Paul, who passed away in 2009, was born in Saskatchewan, but the family spent most of their lives around Carbondale. Paul was on the railroad for many years.

The organist said he and his Mom never ventured far from Morinville. The furthest they lived was Carbondale, about eight miles away. They also had a home in Cardiff and moved back to Morinville in the early ‘70s.

Lavallee said when he is not at church; there is always house and yard work at the house he shares with his mother, Edna. That takes up his time along with choir practice and Sunday masses.

“Every Sunday I am here,” he said. “Two masses every Sunday, 99.9 per cent of the time. Very seldom do I get a break on a Sunday. Thirty-plus years this fall as organist for the Catholic Church. Time goes fast. [It] seems like I just started. Guess it is proof a person likes what they are doing.”

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