Daisy Elitha Peterson Sweeney was born on May 7th, 1920 in Montreal, Quebec. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, she grew up with her four siblings in Montreal’s St. Henri district, now known as Little Burgundy.
Her father was a Canada Pacific Railway porter, who was frequently away on long-distance train trips, and wanted his children to be more that “just porters.” He bought a piano, taught himself to play the instrument and music theory, with the goal of passing this knowledge on to his children. When her father was out of town, it was Daisy’s responsibility to teach her siblings piano and music theory.
During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Daisy and three of her siblings contracted tuberculosis. Daisy spent several months in a sanatorium in Ste Agathe, Quebec. When she was released from the sanatorium, she found out her beloved brother had passed away.
In the late nineteen-thirties and into the 1940’s, Daisy continued her piano studies at McGill University and with private instructors, eventually earning an Associate degree in music from McGill University. She paid for her studies through working as a domestic, as a seamstress in a sweatshop and, at one time, as a riveter in an airplane factory. During this time, she performed recitals of her vast repertoire, covering Baroque, Classical and Romantic composers, at church and other functions at the U.N.I.A. (Universal Negro Improvement Association) and many social/community events. In addition, she began giving piano lessons to children in the neighbourhood.
During the 1950’s through the 1980’s, Daisy continued teaching piano privately. However, her work at the Negro Community Centre (NCC) is often highly praised. At the NCC she gave piano lesson and music theory instruction, on Saturdays, to hundreds of students for as little as $0.25 a lesson.
Daisy Peterson Sweeney is widely known as the teacher of the celebrated jazz pianists Oscar Peterson (her brother) and Oliver Jones, in addition to other notable musicians, including Ken Skinner, Joe Sealey, Reg Wilson and Norman Villeneuve. The list of her students who have pursued a music career, in varying ways, is extensive.
Married to James Sweeney, they had nine children; some of their own, some adopted, some fostered. The children were her life. She was keenly interested in their development and their success in the world. She did not hesitate to rebuke you if you went off the rails. Her devoted interest in how and what they were doing continued to the end of her life.
An accomplished organist as well, she played the organ for services at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, the Union United Church and at the Robert Campbell Presbyterian Church. It was at the Union United Church where she started a choir which she later turned over to Trevor Payne. The Black Community Youth Choir (1974–81) later became the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir in 1982.
In 1987, she received an honorary doctorate from Laurentian University. She was featured in the Round Table Black History Month Calendar of 1999. In addition, she is a Martin Luther King Award recipient, offered by the Black Theatre Workshop. She was also awarded a Certificate of Recognition from the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, extending the Government‘s appreciation for her selfless contribution to the community and Canada.
In 2005, Montréal’s celebrations for the 180th anniversary of the founding of the Lachine Canal included a series of four gospel concerts dedicated in Daisy’s honour.
A mural was created as a tribute to her in 2018. In 2019 the City of Montreal designated a park and street in her name, recognizing her outstanding contribution to Montreal and the community.
Dr. Daisy Peterson Sweeney passed away on August 11th, 2017.
(A Resources page has been created, including biographical information about Daisy Peterson Sweeney, such as videos, a sampling of media and social media links, links related to the story of her life and work and Montreal’s history by decade.)
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