By Fannie Dionne
Musicologist, teacher, and Jesuit priest, New Brunswick Father Louis Cyr (1936–2020) led a life filled with multiple encounters.
From the accounts of people who knew him, it seems that Fr. Cyr had an ear not only for music but also for listening to people from a multitude of cultures.
A Musician who Followed Christ
When he entered the Society of Jesus to respond to the call of Christ, Louis Cyr had already studied music and was an accomplished pianist. This passion never left him. But surprisingly, explains Fr. Bernard Carrière, SJ, “The spontaneity one usually associates with musicians or artists was not part of Louis’ personality. He was seen more as a thoughtful person who always weighed his words before engaging in conversation.”
From 1959 to 1965, Louis Cyr moved quickly through the stages of formation after the novitiate before continuing his studies in music, with the approval of the provincial at the time. He studied for two years in Paris and then continued his studies in Frankfurt until 1975. He spent much of his time there writing a thesis on Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” For this reason, the Jesuit Archives of Canada contains practically every possible recording of this piece! A perfectionist, he did not complete his thesis, although he published extensively on the subject.
Upon his return to Montreal, Fr. Cyr was encouraged to accept the position of founding director of the Department of Music at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). The link with the Jesuits may seem tenuous, but it’s important to note that, through the Collège Sainte-Marie, many Jesuits were important players in the early days of UQAM. Through this work, Fr. Cyr hoped to form people who could pass on their musical knowledge to students. The Jesuit taught not only musicology but also German for almost 10 years.
He was very good at languages and spoke many, recalls Keith Leclaire, Indigenous Health & Policy Consultant, who knew Fr. Cyr when he was a parish priest at Saint Francis Xavier.
“When my cousin from Detroit passed away, his Navajo spouse flew all the way here. She was a German language specialist. At the funeral home, she started talking to Fr. Cyr and told him that she had been to Germany several times. They talked in German for an hour! I think he was just very happy to have been able to speak to another person who was fluent in that language.”
Finally, Fr. Cyr was also a composer, although he left us only a few pieces. Fr. Carrière recounts this anecdote: “When Pope John Paul II came to Canada, the musician who had been chosen to compose a Mass in his honour could not deliver the goods. So, Louis composed a piece very quickly. He was always available.”
“When Pope John Paul II came to Canada, the musician who had been chosen to compose a Mass in his honour could not deliver the goods. So, Louis composed a piece very quickly. He was always available.”
The Last Jesuit Priest in Kahnawá:ke
During his time in novitiate, Fr. Cyr had already expressed an interest in the mission of Kahnawá:ke after having taught catechism there. Hoping to build meaningful relationships with the people, Fr. Cyr gladly accepted the appointment as parish priest in 1990.
He was appreciated as a priest and as a person, notes Leclaire:
“He was always very supportive. During the ice storm, for example, he often went out to check on people. And he was very supportive of my mother when my father died. He made sure he went to see her regularly, and then, when she started to become less mobile, he would go almost every Sunday to give her Communion and the sacraments.”
He was appreciated as a priest and as a person, notes Leclaire.
His passion for music followed him into his new job. “He could tell if a piece was by Chopin, for example, after hearing only two or three notes,” recalls Leclaire. “He also worked with the church choir, which sang in Mohawk. And if the church organist had to be absent, he would fill in.” It was thanks to Fr. Cyr that an organ was donated to Saint Francis Xavier Church.
Fr. Cyr stayed in Kahnawá:ke for 13 years and was the last Jesuit to work there. He was deeply touched by the community.
Fr. Carrière shares that Fr. Cyr once told him, “You know, Mohawks are not people who look at the world in terms of hierarchy. In a church, everyone should be on the same level.”
In 2002, knowing that he was at the end of his mission among the Kanien’kehá:ka, Fr. Cyr wrote a short article in the journal Relations. “Originally, [the Mohawks’] great communicative sensitivity was aimed above all at living in peace and harmony with the other. For the musician with big ears that I am — always on the lookout for any new music or language — this opens up an extraordinary depth of communication. Were we not created to ‘listen to each other’?”
In 2003, Fr. Cyr began to experience health problems. He devoted himself to his research on Stravinsky and, as always, to his friends. “Louis was also a man who was very faithful to his friends,” said Fr. Carrière. He died in December 2020.