Children find belonging, friendship in Winnipeg choir

October 19, 2023 | News | Volume 27 Issue 21
Aaron Epp | Associate Editor
Last May, the Sargent Junior Choir performed ‘The Agape League,’ a musical about the fruit of the spirit. (Supplied photo)

It’s a Wednesday evening and the two dozen children gathered in a room at the back of Sargent Avenue Mennonite Church in Winnipeg are singing about candy-coated chocolate.

“Mommy made me mash my M&M’s” isn’t a sentence one expects to hear in church, but the members of the Sargent Junior Choir are singing the phrase as part of their warm-up exercises.

Soon, they pick up their sheet music and work on the material they will sing during an upcoming church service.

The choir’s 27 members are in grades one through seven. Under the direction of conductor Norinne Danzinger-Dueck, the choir provides monthly worship music from October to March and performs a full musical the first Sunday in May. Last May, the choir staged The Agape League, a superhero adventure about the fruit of the spirit.

For Danzinger-Dueck, a voice and piano teacher who has attended the church for 25 years, the goal is to teach children they are part of worship.

“It’s [somewhere they can] have a place in church and not feel overwhelmed by the older hymns, older pieces [of music] and older adults,” she says. “It’s a place for them to worship and a place for them to show adults they are a vital part of the worship process.”

Sargent Avenue has a history of children’s choirs dating back to at least the 1960s. Children from other churches have long been welcome to join.

When the number of children from Sargent Avenue who participate in the choir started dwindling, Danzinger-Dueck started advertising the choir in other churches.

This year, only four of the choir’s members belong to Sargent Avenue. The rest come from other Mennonite Church Manitoba congregations.

Danzinger-Dueck and pianist Betty Rempel rehearse with the children for one hour each week from September to May.

“I try to mix between more upbeat pieces but also more prayerful and reflective pieces, because I think it’s good for them to understand both and know there’s space for both in the services,” Danzinger-Dueck says.

She does a lot of teaching with the kids, explaining why they are singing certain pieces and the biblical significance in songs. “I try to make as much of a connection to the spiritual part [as I can]… They’re mini-Sunday school lessons, I guess.”

Sargent Avenue member Naomi Ewert enrolled her daughter, Roslyn, in the choir because she wants Roslyn to have the same great choir experience she had as a child.

“I still remember songs I sang in junior choir, so those words… they stick with you,” Ewert says, adding that Roslyn loves to sing. “It’s never been hard to get her [to rehearsal], which is something to be said for a kid doing activities.”

Elisa Barkman, who attends St. Julian’s Table in Beausejour, Manitoba, has three children in the choir and is grateful that it gives them an opportunity to connect with others their age.

“One of the things I really appreciate about Betty and Norinne is when they communicate with the children . . . they’re inviting the children to participate in worship for the benefit of the entire congregation, as opposed to communicating that this is for their own edification,” Barkman says. “To be invited to participate in the broader picture is significant to me.”

Danzinger-Dueck hopes that the children make friends through the choir and that they feel they have a place in the wider church.

“It’s so hard for kids to find places where they belong,” she says. “I hope that they feel part of the community that we’re trying to establish with them.” 


Young voices

Three choristers talk about Sargent Junior Choir:

“I enjoy the musical at the end. I like acting a lot.” —Joanna

“I like the music a lot. She’s a good conductor. Very good.” —Abby

“I like singing and I love the musical at the end. I mean, I haven’t done [a musical yet], but I’m excited about it.” —Dawn

Last May, the Sargent Junior Choir performed ‘The Agape League,’ a musical about the fruit of the spirit. (Supplied photo)

Norinne Danzinger-Dueck has led the Sargent Junior Choir for 11 years. (Photo by Aaron Epp)

The choir rehearses every Wednesday evening from September to May. (Photo by Aaron Epp)

Choir members rehearse a song about Deborah, an Old Testament prophet. (Photo by Aaron Epp)

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