When Hugh McAlear was approached by Rev. Rudy Villeneuve in 1970 and asked to find a purpose for a group of teens hanging at the Stop and Go outside of St. Francis de Sales Church, he probably didn’t think he would be arranging their 50th anniversary reunion in 2023 – but that is exactly the case.
“If you knew Father Rudy, if he got into your head then he got into your heart, and you couldn’t say no. So, I go, and I sit in the corner just watching. Stayed for an hour and went home. Came back again, did the same thing. I was looking to see who was a leader,” explained McAlear.
On the third day, a young man approached McAlear asking who he was and what he was doing there. His name was Tom Malyon, and he would end up being the Folk Group’s leader for the next 5 years.
McAlear, who was in his early 20s at the time, told Malyon his name and that he was observing the group to see what made them tick.
“A lot of you play the music of groups like Crosby, Stills & Nash, folk music … Did you ever think of making a singing group?”
“Are you kidding, we can’t even get along!” Malyon exclaimed.
“Well,” said McAlear, “Music is what holds you together.”
After a group of 5 or 6 got started, Rev. Villeneuve came around and asked if they would get a few songs together to sing a mass on Saturday. A folk mass, for ‘all folk’. Rev. Villeneuve encouraged the group to be ecumenical, meaning it didn’t matter about your religious affiliation – anyone who wanted to participate was welcome.
Now that they had a purpose, things took off. The St. Francis de Sales Folk Group soon grew in numbers and ended up with 63 in total – 40 girls and 23 boys.
McAlear, acting as music director, asked himself how he was going to keep such a large group busy. The answer he came up with was travel. When he pitched the idea to the group, the oldest of which was 13 or 14, at first, they thought he was crazy. He gave them 6 to 8 months to get a group of songs together and then they hit the road.
The Desjardins in Martintown wanted to start a similar group between two churches but there weren’t enough people. McAlear and his group went out there to help them get started and the Desjardins made him a deal: they would drive their school buses for the group at no charge, all they had to do was pay the gas.
The group started travelling to places like Massena, Ottawa, and Smiths Falls. They played in a lot of churches in the area and then went a little father, to Whitby. Their farthest adventure was a two-week trip out West where students from five local high schools travelled to Banff, Jasper, Prince George, Simon Fraser University, Fort St. James and maximum security prisons, sharing their music.
Half of the trip expenses were covered with almond sales, bake sales, and concerts, while the other half came from a student exchange program.
“I used to call them Motleys Crew because they were all like renegades. But when it came time to doing this, I hardly recognized who they were,” said McAlear, reminiscing that one time they got on the same plane as Margaret Trudeau and her kids and got to play for them.
The St. Francis de Sales Folk Group was the largest mixed musical group from Cornwall that travelled as far as they did. When they got back from out West, McAlear made it clear that in 1975 he was done. It was time for ‘his kids’ as he called them, to go off to college or university, and he did not want the group to be the thing to hold them back.
After they disbanded, McAlear formed other music groups in the region.
The St. Francis de Sales Folk Group kept in touch over the years, celebrating 10th and 25th reunions. Their 50th reunion – held off by COVID-19 – will take place on the August long weekend.
Some former members live as far as Florida, Thailand, and England. Local members have been meeting once a month to practice, and approximately 30 of the original group are expected to attend. On Saturday the group plans to have a long practice, sing a mass, and a gathering afterwards. The next morning is brunch and farewell.
If you or someone you know was a part of the group that travelled out West in May of 1974 and would like to be part of the 2023 reunion, please contact Hugh McAlear at 613-933-8462.