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.