Normand Gingras plays Dubois on the 1964 Casavant at Saint Annes at a concert in November 1983.
The "Saint Anne Tradition"
An initiative to bring awareness to St. Anne's Parish and Shrine in Fall River MA, its legendary Casavant Organ, and Organist Normand Gingras.
Growing up in Somerset MA, and also being apart of a musical family, gave me many opportunities to see amazing music in southern New England. These musical experiences shaped my life and ultimately helped me find my path to a career in music. Each time my mother or father would drive over the Braga bridge into the city, I would point and smile at the two twin copper bell towers standing watch over Kennedy park and the Taunton River. One of the most important places for my musical development and one place that has had the greatest impact on me is Saint Anne's Church and Shrine.
Saint Anne's Parish was founded in 1869 to serve the nearly 3000 French Canadian immigrants already in the city. The parish originally worshiped in a fairly large-sized wooden structure. It wasn't until 1891 that construction of the current edifice began by Canadian architect Napoléon Bourassa. The work was also supervised by Fall River architect Louis G. Destremps who also built the very famous Notre Dame de Lourdes church also in Fall River (which burned in 1982). Work began on the upper church on July 17, 1902. The building, which is constructed of blue marble from Proctor, Vermont, measures 277 feet long by 122 wide, with steeples 160 feet high. The exterior was completed in June 1904 and the new church was formally dedicated on July 4, 1906. The complex was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.
As Saint Anne's began to develop as a parish, the Diocese of Fall River entrusted the Dominicans to administer the parish and by the late 1950s, Saint Anne's was becoming well known around the world for its French heritage as well as the many masses and programs the church offered for the faithful and the community.
However, God had plans for music at Saint Anne's. In 1958 the community welcomed a native son to lead the program; NORMAND GINGRAS.
Normand Gingras, a native of Fall River was born to two wealthy parents, Alice Parker and Wilfred Gingras in 1927, a few blocks from Saint Anne's Church on Osborne Street.
The Gingras family was quite well known in the community. Wilfred ran a very successful insurance company under the name Gingras Insurance and Alice's father owned the very famous Parkers Candy Store, which was a Fall River fixture for many years. Normand, the oldest child, had different ideas of what he wanted to do with his life. He had musical talent.
Normand went on to get a Bachelor of Music degree from Boston University in Piano Performance. He would then go on to Paris France to study Piano at École Normale de Musique where he remained for two years. He would also at that time begin to study organ with Jean Langlais, the famous blind organist, and composer from the 20th-century French organ school.
Normand returned to the United States in 1956 with quite a pedigree. He began teaching piano and performing extensively in the area. In 1957 Saint Anne's began looking for an organist/music director and a French/Music teacher at Saint Anne's School.
Normand was subsequently hired. His first masses were played on a Baldwin electronic organ which replaced the former Frazee Pipe Organ. By 1960 Normand had elevated the program both at the church and the school.
Normand had developed a boys choir of over 60 children from Saint Anne's school. He had also developed an extremely successful parish choir each steeped in the French choral tradition. Many students studied organ with him over the years. They include David Carrier, Andrew Galuska, and Jonathan Davis to name a few.
With the Baldwin electronic failing and not proving to be useful, Normand approached the church, commissioning Casavant Freres to build a new instrument.
Opus 2793, built in 1963 and dedicated in October 1964 was not the first organ of this kind in the area. Many of the large French churches in the area have/had Casavant organs.
Notre Dame de Lourdes, Fall River: 1906 (destroyed by fire in 1982)
Saint Anthony of Padua, New Bedford: 1912 altered but completely playable. In need of restoration.
Saint Joseph's (Saint Joseph's/Therese), New Bedford: 1960, altered and supposedly in poor condition.
Saint Anne's is perhaps the largest and one of the best examples of Casavant's work in the area and beyond. Designed by Lawrence Phelps, It would remain the largest organ in Southern New England (3 manuals/pedal, 84 ranks, 4,518 pipes) until the 1972 Casavant organ of the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, Providence RI was installed.
The organ is described as modern French romantic in the original contract which many organists and organ builders agree is true. The organ while including bright voicing is extremely atypical for Casavant of this era. The foundations are not thin and to the contrary not forced. The specification is quite complete. Many types of music can be played on the instrument.
The organ was a favorite of Jean Langlais, who dedicated the organ. He made many other trips to Saint Anne's years later to play during the Sunday masses as well as concerts. Often these visits were unannounced. Here Langlais and his wife are pictured below outside Saint Anne's in 1972. The picture to the right also includes Normand's mother, student David Carrier, and Bishop Pierre Whalon.
The organ quickly became famous. Many notable organists have concertized on the instrument since its installation. Normand was also extremely welcoming to all who wished to tour it and play it.
Through this wonderful instrument at the helm, Normand continued to foster a wonderful music program. Each week he never cheated his listeners out of a note, preparing major works from all genres and periods of organ literature. The choirs also became quite well known.
In 2007, Normand celebrated his 50th anniversary as organist and music director of Saint Anne's. At that time, he played an extensive schedule of 5 masses each weekend, over 100 funerals a year, and about 100 weddings a year. The celebration included a stunning recital where many members of the Southeastern Massachusetts Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, Normand's former students, and Normand himself played. The concert was well attended Normand was 80. Normand is pictured below playing Widor's Toccata from the fifth symphony while student David Carrier looks on.
In 2011 Normand suffered a stroke. His duties at Saint Anne's became more and more difficult. In February 2012 after 54 years of service, Normand retired as music director and organist. He left behind a legacy that has inspired so many generations to come.
Normand passed away in the early hours of January 11th, 2020. He was 92 years old. His legacy lives on through his students and friends.
Unfortunately, decreasing mass attendance and rising costs have been a burden for many churches in the city of Fall River. Saint Anne's has needed some major maintenance for some years now. In May of 2015, a piece of plaster fell in the north transept of the church during a weekend mass. The next day the building inspector of the city closed the main church of Saint Anne's to the public. Since then, it has been closed and masses have been held in the shrine. The organ sits alone and silent in the room.
The diocese announced on October 14th, 2018 that Saint Anne's would have its last mass on November 25th, 2018. The church closed, however, fortunately, due to the efforts of the St. Anne’s Preservation Society, headed by city parishioner Richard Affonso, the Shrine re-opened on July 4, 2019. The shrine now continues to operate and the preservation society hopes to restore and reopen the main structure.