Calixa Lavallée (contributed photo)

Music to O Canada was written by the ancestor of a Red Deer-area nun

The national anthem is extra special to Sister Lynn Rouleau

Red Deer-area nun Sister Lynn Rouleau grew up singing O Canada, like most other Canadians.

But the national anthem became a little more personal to her when she discovered her great- great- great-uncle was Calixa Lavallée, who wrote the music to the song in 1880.

“I think it’s a good hymn. Now I say it’s my claim to fame,” said a chuckling Sister Rouleau, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Canada order.

The 70-year-old,who retired from her role as pastoral assistant at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, was filled in on her family history by her aunt about 20 years ago.

She was initially surprised to learn she’s related to the illustrious Lavallée through her mother’s family tree, but her own research confirmed it.

The composer of Canada’s national anthem (the words to O Canada were originally written in French by poet and judge Sir Adolphe-Basile Routhier, and later in English by Robert Stanley Weir), was born in 1842 in a village near Montreal.

Lavallée was the son of a blacksmith, logger and bandmaster, who began his musical education by taking organ lessons from his dad, and later more seasoned instructors.

As a young adult, he travelling to Mexico and Brazil as a touring musician. Lavallée later settled in the U.S. and joined the Union Army as a coronet player during the American Civil War. Although wounded in battle, he attained a lieutenant’s rank and continued performing as a musician in Canada and the U.S. Some of his stage appearances were in minstrel shows, with singers in black face.

Rouleau knows this is considered racist, but believes white musicians of a century or more ago performed music written by black Americans because they recognized its excellence. “They wouldn’t have performed music they didn’t like…”

In 1880, Lavallée was asked by the lieutenant governor of Quebec to write a tune called O Canada to celebrate St. Jean-Baptiste Day — and the rest is history. The hymn has been Canada’s unofficial national anthem since 1939, becoming official in 1980 through an act of parliament and royal assent.

Although its lyrics have undergone changes (“thy sons” changed to the gender neutral “of us”), the stirring tune has remained the same — whether played at the start of hockey games, in schools or concert halls.

Sister Rouleau, who was raised in Edmonton because her grandma’s father’s brother, Narcisse Lavallée, moved to Morinville, creating an Alberta branch of the family tree, believes her great- great- great-uncle was a “fascinating” character — and something of a mystery.

There have been no serious musicians in the family since, she added. “My grandma would chord while my grandpa would fiddle, but that’s about it.”


Calixa Lavallée (contributed detail from an image).

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