Music, Please! McGhee Receives 2016 McLennan Award

The announcement this week that Rosemary McGhee, longtime Sydney area music teacher, is the 2016 recipient of the Katharine McLennan Award will be received with great joy by her many friends, her former students, her choir members, her chorale associates and all the others who have been exposed to her commitment to music of all genres since her arrival in Cape Breton 43 years ago.

Rosemary McGhee at piano

Rosemary McGhee

Rosemary joins John O’Donnell, Shirley Chernin and Ron Caplan, all of whom have received the award established in 2013 to honor those who have made a significant contribution and a “lasting change in the area (s) of art, culture and/or historical preservation of Cape Breton Island.” The award is named for the late Katharine McLennan and celebrates her exemplification of leadership, integrity, social responsibility and lifelong willingness to serve her community.


Music, Music, Music

Born in York, England, McGhee’s love of music was nurtured by both parents: a father who played violin and a mother who loved opera. McGhee also has a brother who played violin. Enamored of the piano herself at a young age, she began lessons and by age 10 was not only singing in a choir but often providing accompaniment, a bit of a prelude to her later life.

She completed her studies in England and taught a year in Nottinghamshire before emigrating to Canada (to Newfoundland, to be specific), arriving a year later in Cape Breton, where she has made her home and her life.

McGhee’s influence on the musical scene in Sydney began when she was named music teacher for the Sydney school system in 1974, a position that gave her a tremendous opportunity to inspire students with her own love of music. One former Sheriff Jr. High student recalls learning the score for the Broadway musical Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, lyrics she still remembers along with her admiration for a music teacher who was “with it” and knew what music would appeal to that age group.

Very early in her career, McGhee was asked to help devise a music course for Grades 5-9 in Nova Scotia, and later to help develop a Grade XII music program for the province. In 1980-81, she taught a course at the University College of Cape Breton (now Cape Breton University) for classroom music teachers and as recently as 2007, she taught a course on opera as part of the CBU Seniors’ College.

Her commitment to the youth of our area is evidenced by her time as an accompanist for the Provincial Youth Choir Camp in August of 1985 and as accompanist for Sr. Rita Clare’s Cape Breton Youth Choir from 1989 to 1998. McGhee also organized and conducted the city-wide choir for the celebration of Sydney’s Bicentennial Year in 1985, having previously organized and rehearsed various Cape Breton choirs to sing for the 1984 Papal Visit in Halifax.


St. Anthony Daniel

Rosemary McGhee and St. Anthony Daniel choir, 1974

Rosemary McGhee (seated) with St. Anthony Daniel Senior Choir, 1974. Front row: Cecily MacDonald, Lillian Romard, Irene Whalen, Yvonne Gouthreau, Anita Pierrynowski, Deanna MacNeil. Middle row: Michelle Taylor, Arlene Schwartz, Simonne Wallace, Beth MacPherson, Susanna MacDonald. Back row: Bernard LeVert, Chalmers MacIntyre, John Steele, Bob MacDonald, George Romard

McGhee, you can see, was one busy lady. And we have yet to touch on her contribution to the liturgical music of Cape Breton. She served as choir director and accompanist for the St. Anthony Daniel Senior Choir for 34 years, a position as demanding as it was time-consuming. For 10 months of each year, she was responsible for the music for Sunday Mass and other liturgical services, as well as overseeing two-hour Sunday evening practices. It had to be a labor of love for both her and for her choir members, many of whom were with her from the beginning and proved themselves as devoted as McGhee to providing beautiful music for parishioners. A highlight was the production of a CD to mark the 50th anniversary of the parish in 1999, a wonderful treasury of hymns, both old and new, that required hours of practice but resulted in a lasting tribute to both choir and director and a lasting keepsake for parishioners and friends.

McGhee served on the diocesan liturgical commission; was a member of the Atlantic regional commission that helped devise the national hymnal, The Catholic Book of Worship III; organized and prepared choirs for the Antigonish diocesan sesquicentennial delebration at Centre 200 in 1994 and managed the same for the Antigonish diocesan millennium in 2000, all while conducting various liturgical workshops around the diocese.


Solo Turn

Having retired from the school system in 2006, McGhee became a student herself in 2011, when an opportunity arose to take classical music lessons, the musical genre that had always appealed to her most.

In June of 2016, she held her first solo recital of 10 classical pieces which she had practised for seven months, three hours a day, to perfect. For her, it was the culmination of a passion for the music of the masters and included compositions of Bach, Debussy, Brahms, Scarlatti, Chopin and Rachmaninov. Her knowledge of their musical styles was in evidence as she introduced each piece with a short bio of the composer.

McGhee has always expressed thanks to Sr. Rita Clare who, as director of the Cape Breton Chorale (of which McGhee was a member almost from its inception) included many classical pieces in its repertoire. McGhee has now taken over the reins of the chorale as interim director while continuing to offer her services at her local parish, St. Marguerite Bourgeoys, during the summer months, as well as giving her Yamaha a workout as she puts in her practice hours each day in anticipation of another recital.

McGhee’s contribution to Cape Breton in many ways mirrors McLennan’s own, although McGhee herself, never one to blow her own horn, would be the last to say so. Sincere congratulations to McGhee on this much-deserved award. May music always brighten your ways and your days as you have done for so many others.



Kudos to the Beaton Institute, Fortress Louisbourg Association, Parks Canada and the Cape Breton Regional Library for the wonderful Katharine McLennan Award ceremony held on Thursday, Sept. 8 in the fortress chapel, during which Rosemary McGhee was presented with this well-deserved award.

From the opening song, “Louisbourg” by Allister MacGillivray, a beautifully haunting homage to the fortress, sung by former members of the St. Anthony Daniel Parish Senior Choir, to a sing-along that included more of MacGillivray’s songs as well as those of many of other well-known Cape Breton artists, the afternoon ceremony was a true tribute to McGhee, whose whole life has been inspired by her love of music.

MacGillivray’s “Louisbourg,” which many had not heard before, is from his 1979 songbook, Out On The Mira And Other Compositions. Strangely enough, it’s one of his musical creations that seems to have slipped under the radar, but sung, as it was, in harmonies created by McGhee, I can’t imagine that it will remain a “hidden gem,” but rather will be heard again and again, especially at the fortress, where its poignant refrain is a true tribute to the historical site.

She stands alone, facing the sea.

Who knows what pictures stain her memories.

She was Queen, she was mistress, she was pageantry,

She was tragedy

Although the St. Anthony Daniel Senior Choir had disbanded in 2014, members  (directed, of course, by McGhee) performed throughout the tributes and were in fine voice. Jim MacNeil, Bernard LeVert, Mel Sampson, Ralph Campbell, George Romard, Evelyn MacSween, Arlene Mullan, Catherine Arseneau, Kathleen Quirk, Clare MacKillop, Marilyn Smith and Peggy LeVatte provided a musical background to an afternoon dedicated to a woman who has contributed so much through music to so many in her community.

Recipients of the Katharine McLennan Award are presented with a memento that captures that dedication to community in a unique way and in McGhee’s case, it was a composition by well-known local violinist, Colin Grant. “Rosemary McGhee’s Waltz,” was rendered beautifully and received with great applause both by the honoree and those present. Grant says it was his first commission, and while he adds that he might very well change such a piece even as he plays it (!), the final version will be presented to McGhee very soon, and she will no doubt play it with great pride for a long time to come.

The sing-along that ended the presentation was a huge success as all joined in singing the songs of Cape Breton that everyone seemed to know and love. McGhee’s gracious response to the afternoon was received with applause indicating deep-felt appreciation for the many hours she has given to making her community a far richer place.

Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.