Charlotte Owens Sackett: Teaching the Sisters to Sing

October 23, 2006 | 7 comments
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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; 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.� 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.

originally published February 2006

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7 Responses to Charlotte Owens Sackett: Teaching the Sisters to Sing

  1. Dianna H. on October 24, 2006 at 12:42 am

    Another beautiful view into the history of women in this Church. Thank you and please give us more. When I joined the Church in 1962 each Ward seemed to have a “Singing Sisters” group and that lasted for a number of years. Maybe they changed it to sisters since we are all sisters but not all are mothers? Thanks again and please keep these coming.

  2. remembrancer on October 24, 2006 at 2:14 am

    Thank you for this lovely post. My own mother was involved with the
    \”Singing Mothers\”. I remember their early sixties version of the
    white blouse and dark skirted uniform. More important, I remember
    the joy on the faces of the \”Mothers\” as they sang… What a treat to
    to remember my mom in such a way!

  3. Mark IV on October 24, 2006 at 10:11 am

    Another winner, Ardis. Thanks.

  4. Ardis on October 24, 2006 at 11:22 am

    Dianna: Although the church-wide program remained Singing Mothers, while I was researching this I ran into a number of groups renamed Singing Sisters. One group had written in to the RS Magazine to say they were using “sisters” because they were all college girls. Others wrote in to say they were keeping “mothers” as a tribute to their own mothers who had sung in the earliest choruses. I don’t know if there was ever any General Board advice one way or another. Just as long as they kept singing!

    remembrancer: I think Lottie would love to have read your comment.

    and Mark: Thanks for this. I know there’s not much new to add in comments from one of these stories to the next unless you have a personal connection to the woman or story, but of course I like to know that people are reading these and enjoying them.

  5. Lawrence on October 24, 2006 at 7:17 pm

    Ardis, I’m curious as to whether your sketches are shortened for T&S or are they the finished product? When I read that your work will be compiled into something larger, I wondered whether there would be more personal and in depth information on the women in your fine stories. I hope there will be. I really look forward to your posts. They are helping to fill a little occupied niche and nicely tell of some common and uncommon women in the church.

  6. J. Stapley on October 24, 2006 at 7:38 pm

    Now, if only the MoTab could get their altos and sopranos into suits. What a splendid example. I always feel bad for them every time I see them sing….I know I shouldn’t…but moomoos are, well, less atractive.

    I have come across some other interesting choirs in my research, notably the Temple quartet and Temple Choir of the early 20th century. When I get more time, I’ll check it out. But this story is another great piece of our musical history.

  7. Ardis Parshall on October 24, 2006 at 9:27 pm

    Lawrence — These T&S posts are identical to what was printed in my ward’s RS newsletter, where I am limited to one side of the page. The kind of detail that appears varies from story to story, usually depending on what document triggered my awareness of any particular sister: in a few cases where the trigger was a letter or diary, I can use more of the woman’s direct words and try to get inside her thoughts a little more clearly than I can when the trigger was an account about her, or simply the discovery that a woman was involved in some historical event. It’s like trying to do your family history where you are sometimes limited to reading between the lines of the dry public documents — never satisfactory, but the best you can do with the dearth of detail about individual women. But in almost all cases I have at least a little more detail that I will include with the version I want to publish; source citations will also be used. (I’m not including any of that here as a way of maintaining my claim to this work — if some of these stories start floating around the internet without attribution, I’m still the only one who can identify the usually obscure sources.)

    J: If you feel sorry for the MoTab sisters, save a little of your pity for the poor sister missionaries on Temple Square who have to wear solid dark colors in styles without the slightest hint of personality or flair, as if those horrible outfits were the feminine equivalent of the elders’ business wear. Me, I’m not sure I would have survived my mission without the opportunity of wearing my bright red suit on days that I needed the emotional lift. I still wear red as often as I can get away with it — no moomoos, either.