Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Charlotte Owens Sackett: Teaching the Sisters to Sing
 


Charlotte Owens Sackett: Teaching the Sisters to Sing

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 22, 2008

Lottie Owens was born in 1877 in Willard, Box Elder County, Utah. Her mother’s family were early Church members in Nauvoo; her father had emigrated to Utah as a convert from Wales.

Among the Owens family’s closest friends during Lottie’s childhood was another Welshman, Evan Stephens, the gifted teacher and composer who would one day transform the Salt Lake Stake’s choir from a good local chorus into the world-class, award-winning Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Lottie learned to sing under the guidance of Evan Stephens and absorbed his techniques for teaching ordinary Saints to sing with extraordinary beauty.

While still a very young woman, Lottie became the supervisor of music for all the schools in Box Elder County, a position she filled for five years before going to a similar five-year position in the schools of American Fork.

Lottie continued her musical education at every opportunity: She studied in Salt Lake City under John J. McClellan, one of the greatest of all the Tabernacle organists. She took courses at the University of Chicago, and spent time in New York City studying with private teachers. She honed her own teaching skills by supporting herself in Salt Lake City as a private music teacher. And as a life-long Church worker, she contributed her talents to the musical work of the various wards and stakes she lived in.

Lottie was 36 years old before she met her husband, Henry Billinger Sackett, and married him in the Salt Lake Temple. Harry was a traveling salesman, but he came from a musical background himself – his father had been a music teacher and piano tuner in Iowa during Harry’s youth. Lottie and Harry had two daughters, Jane and “Frankie,” but Lottie was widowed in 1925 after only ten years of married life.

With her lovely soprano voice, her thorough music education, and her extraordinary teaching talents, one might suppose that Lottie would seek recognition and professional opportunities beyond the scope of a western desert community. But Lottie shared the vision of her old friend Evan Stephens: they both believed that the outside world offered no greater rewards than could be found at home, and that their calling was to develop the raw talent of the Saints into offerings worthy of the Kingdom of God. Lottie’s desire was to teach women “to learn the hymns and sing them in parts.” Not only did such music praise God, but also provided the sisters with “a much needed emotional outlet and relief from home cares.”

In 1931, as chorister of Salt Lake’s Liberty Stake, Lottie directed a music festival in the Yale Ward chapel. Among those who attended were Louise Y. Robinson, general president of the Relief Society, and Lucy Gates Bowen, the first Utah native to become a European-trained opera singer. So impressed were both women with the quality of Lottie’s large chorus of ordinary Latter-day Saint sisters, most of them mothers and grandmothers, that Lottie was invited to organize a women’s chorus to perform at the 1932 Relief Society Conference. Lottie’s chorus so pleased their audience at that conference that she was asked to bring an even larger group of women to provide all the music at the Saturday afternoon session of the 1932 April General Conference.

President Heber J. Grant invited Lottie’s chorus of 250 sisters to return and sing at the 1933 April General Conference. They did so, announcing their new name: The Singing Mothers. They also wore their new uniforms: long-sleeved white blouses and simple dark skirts – clothing that virtually every woman could find in her existing wardrobe, so that no sister need be excluded in those days of Depression poverty.

The Singing Mothers quickly became an institution throughout the Church, with ward and stake choruses being formed from Norway to New Zealand. The sisters learned music from the greatest masters, but always their main focus was on learning hymns and anthems and performing them for the joy of the Saints. Many recordings of various choruses were made and can still be found in the record cabinets of descendants and in the LDS Church History Library.

Lottie returned with her Singing Mothers to provide music at General Conferences throughout the ‘30s, before relinquishing her baton to a new conductor. She continued her musical services in her ward and stake. Lottie died in January 1956; at her funeral she was honored for “the inspiration of her direction” in a lasting heritage of music to the Church, and the individual development in the lives of all the “ordinary” women she had taught.

This appeared on Times and Seasons in October 2006.



8 Comments »

  1. Very interesting, Ardis. Somehow I missed this the first time around.

    I can remember my mother participating in the stake Singing Mothers when I was very little, but I thought that was just what they called themselves in our area. I didn’t know that this was a church-wide institution with such a grand heritage.

    Not only did such music praise God, but also provided the sisters with “a much needed emotional outlet and relief from home cares.”

    In my mom’s case, this was true. She enjoyed going to the practices, and seemed refreshed and renewed when she came home.

    Comment by Mark IV — June 22, 2008 @ 7:03 am

  2. Wonderful, Ardis. This is inspirational.

    I attended Payson High School over twenty years ago. I was blessed to sing for David Dahlquist, one of the most impressive musicians and directors I have ever met. (A song he wrote – “Lullaby” – took second place in the 1980 All-Church Music Contest.) I thought of him when I read your description of Sis. Sackett and Bro. Stephens:

    “they both believed that the outside world offered no greater rewards than could be found at home, and that their calling was to develop the raw talent of the Saints into offerings worthy of the Kingdom of God.”

    Mr. D had numerous opportunities to leave our little farm community school and pursue a career at the college level and beyond. He stayed, however, because he simply loved touching kids’ hearts and helping them find glory and majesty in music. The sheer joy and rapture on his face when a song “clicked” with his kids was wonderful to behold. He touched more lives directly and profoundly in his 30 years as a teacher than perhaps anyone else in the history of the towns that feed into Payson High. Other than my father, he probably is the one teacher who has been the greatest inspirational example in my life.

    His and his wife’s story is told in the September, 2002 Ensign (“In a Quiet House”). The link is too long to include here, but if you read it (and please do) have a box of Kleenex handy. It is incredibly moving and illustrates Dave and Maria amazingly well. Their story will break your heart and fill your soul.

    Mr.D retired a few years ago, and a scholarship fund was established in his name to help an exceptional student each year who sings at Payson High School pursue his or her college career. If you know of anyone who can read his story and bring this fund to a greater audience, I will be eternally grateful.

    Comment by Ray — June 22, 2008 @ 10:57 am

  3. Ray, can you refer me to someone or some website with information on the scholarship? And egads, that’s a story. Please, everybody, take a moment to read the article here.

    Mark IV, have I ever told you how much I appreciate what seems to be your habit of checking Keepapitchinin every morning, and being willing to comment? I do.

    When most women today have much more opportunity to get out of the house, or at least to bring entertainment and cultural artifacts into the house, I wonder whether we can really appreciate what a program like the Singing Mothers must have meant to our mothers and grandmothers.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 22, 2008 @ 12:47 pm

  4. Loved the story. It’s one of those that makes you wonder what kind of person you are and it also makes you want to be a better person. I hope someone like you posts something about me some far-off day when I’m long gone and that people say, “Wow, inspirational.”

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — June 22, 2008 @ 1:40 pm

  5. Ardis, I will send an e-mail to the selection committee and cc: you. My greatest hope is that someone, somehow can find a way to establish a reserve large enough that it can generate a regular scholarship from the interest. If there is anyone who deserves that legacy, it is Mr. D and Maria Elena.

    Comment by Ray — June 22, 2008 @ 8:17 pm

  6. You’re welcome, Ardis, but it is I who thanks you. I enjoy very much this combination of inspiration, scholarship, and fun. It is like a daily dose of goodness that I don’t want to miss.

    I especially like the stories of people like Sister Sackett, and all the other unsung Zion-builders.

    Comment by Mark IV — June 23, 2008 @ 7:15 am

  7. Thank you for sharing a lovely article honoring Sister Sackett and the Singing Mothers – I also enjoyed reading the comments the Dahlquists’ story. There is nothing that can bring the comforting Spirit of the Lord into our lives quicker than participating in beautiful music. I have been blessed to be a mother who sings. I have come to learn personally that sharing our talents for the Lord and His kingdom brings a satisfaction than the relentless pursuit of a paid career cannot provide.

    I appreciate reading your positive posts. Keep it up!

    Comment by Mormon Soprano — June 23, 2008 @ 9:35 am

  8. [...] From the fabulous historian Ardis: Meet the Singing Mothers [...]

    Pingback by Virtual Oases, June 24 « The Exponent — June 24, 2008 @ 8:02 pm

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