The 35-year journey of two U of O grads was all about being in the right place at the right time

Photos courtesy of Holly Massie

“We really loved the idea of singing, and doing it without having to ask for anything,” Holly Massie remembers aloud of her first few years as a Stairwell Caroller. “It was just to bring the spirit of Christmas to people. It was a gift.”

The seasoned singer speaks from her home in Ottawa during a short break from the holiday bustle of rehearsals and performances, with her husband Pierre Massie—or Pete, for short—nearby. The two are founding members of the Stairwell Carollers, an a cappella choir based in Ottawa that was formed in 1977. As Holly puts it, the choir wouldn’t have existed had it not been for the University of Ottawa.

Pierre and Holly Massie in 2012.

It’s been more than 35 short years since Holly met Pete. The two had taken up roost in Marchand Residence way back in 1975 for their first year as U of O students. Holly was studying theatre in English; and Pete, music in French. She was in dorm room 1201, he 1301. And because the elevator in the Marchand building would only go to the girls’ floors and the boys had to take the stairs up or down a floor to get to theirs, Pete had to pass by Holly’s room every day on his way to and from classes. After about a week, he decided to poke his head in.

“I thought he was a real weirdo for introducing himself,” Holly says with a laugh.

Regardless, the two became friends, and that friendship extended in two life-changing ways. On one note (pun not intended), they came to be a perfect match and were married shortly after their graduation in 1980. On another note, they started singing carols in the stairwells of their residence—hence the name of the group—to cheer up students during 1975’s first dreary exam season. Pete recruited more singers over the next two years, and the group started performing at community centres, churches, and anywhere else that would host them. They wouldn’t collect any money themselves, just performed as a favour for other people. Sometimes the carollers would show up in a mall in Ottawa wearing festive sweaters and spreading Christmas cheer for all to hear (rhyme definitely intended).

“It was very casual for a long time, but it was steady,” says Holly. “We were just a bunch of people who sang carols.”

The Stairwell Carollers in 1979.

The Stairwell Carollers are now a registered charity and have turned sales from their concerts and seven recorded albums into more than $45,000 in donations to local charities. The carollers’ debut album—which was set in motion by local radio personality Gord Atkinson in 1977—raised more than $20,000 for Ronald McDonald House. The group has also awarded scholarships worth $11,000 to students pursuing studies in music at the U of O and other Canadian universities.

“Besides bringing the spirit of Christmas to people, we wanted to try to actually give something practical to them,” says Holly.

Led by Pete, the group now comprises 24 members—altos and sopranos, basses and tenors—but that number has fluctuated over the years.

The choir has dedicated two of its albums to members who have passed away. One of the choir’s members was taken by breast cancer shortly after recording the group’s second album. Another member suffered a fatal heart attack earlier this year. But the group has stayed strong.

“You know what traumatic things do—they pull you together,” says Holly.

People come and go—jobs change, people move, and some pass on—but the spirit of the Stairwell Carollers remains intact. As Holly says, “It’s just such a family.”

The carollers are taking their holiday hymns around Ottawa this season; the choir performed a stone’s throw away from the university on Nov. 30 at St. Paul’s Eastern United Church and will perform again at Glebe St. James United Church on Dec. 15 and St. Columba Anglican Church on Dec. 19.

Holly now teaches drama at Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School in the city’s east end, while Pete heads the department of fine arts at Glebe Collegiate Institute. Each of them has taught several student teachers who graduated from the U of O, and Holly still looks back fondly at her alma mater and how it shaped the life she and her husband live today.

“It’s been wonderful, I mean, absolutely lovely,” she says. “It was pure serendipity that we met, because he was in the French music program and I was in the English theatre program—different buildings, different languages. He was from Timmins and I’m from Ottawa. We would not have met unless his room had been above mine—that was absolutely the only way we would have met. It just happened, and it was meant to be.”