A Brief History of Menno Singers

Historically whether a Mennonite congregation in Canada had a regular choir in Sunday worship told one much about the historical roots of the congregations. Amish congregations and Mennonites from Pennsylvania did not have choirs in churches, though Mennonite educational institutions like high schools and postsecondary institutions from early in their history had choirs that toured congregations with special musical programs on Sunday evenings or other times.

Mennonites whose roots were in the 1920s immigration from Russia brought the notion of regular choirs along with them; they had developed in Russia many decades before.

Below is a draft article for the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) that I drafted about Menno Singers, a non-professional choral group in the Region of Waterloo that has existed since 1955.  It is no longer a strictly Mennonite choir, but still has a majority of Mennonite choristers.

Menno Singers, a non-professional community choir, gave its first performance in December 1955. Abner Martin, Harold Good, Doris Moyer and Edith Shantz founded the choir. All of them had participated in a touring chorus of students from Goshen College in Indiana, and desired a similar choral opportunity in the Waterloo County area. They were also Rockway Mennonite School graduates who wanted to continue to sing classical choral music. Although it began as a Mennonite group, over time non-Mennonite choristers have also participated in Menno Singers.

In its early years, the choir followed the pattern of Mennonite college choirs from the United States, and sang only a cappella music, in English, and raised money only through free-will offerings. Finally in 1962 it hired an orchestra, charged admission for the first time, and sang a two-hour setting of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin. This marked a significant change in the aspirations of the Menno Singers.


Menno Singers in 1966. Abner Martin in suit at left of second row. David Hunsberger photo at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario

cdcover_winters_snowMenno Singers established an association with Conrad Grebel College in 1974; this extended into the 1980s. In 1975 Menno Singers began to apply for grants to support its programming, initially from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, and later from other foundations. It has produced three recordings – Rachmaninoff’s Vespers in 1992, See Amid the Winter’s Snow in 2000, and Cloths of Heaven (2009).

Mennonite Mass Choir, sponsored by Menno Singers, began in 1974, and provided opportunities for amateur singers to perform major choral works with professional soloists and orchestra. While participants were not auditioned, they needed to be able to read music and attend regular regional rehearsals. Initially held annually, mass choir events became more occasional in the 2000s.

Menno Singers established an Abner Martin Music Scholarship after Martin’s retirement as director. The first award was made in 1981. The annual scholarship has been given to deserving Mennonite music students.

In 1997 Menno Singers experienced a difficult period when the newly-appointed director, Wayne Gilpin, lost the confidence of the Menno Singers executive over differences in philosophy and spending, and was dismissed just prior to Christmas. The dispute received much coverage in the local press. Fortunately, Peter Nikiforuk was then appointed and served the next 20 years.

In the 2000s Menno Singers cooperated closely with the Inter-Mennonite Children’s Choir (founded in 1965 by Helen Martens at Conrad Grebel College) and the Menno Youth Singers (founded in 2004 by Judith Bean). Together these groups became known as the Menno Singers family of choirs.


Brandon Leis

Menno Singers directors have included Abner Martin (1955-1969, 1973-1979); Jan Overduin (1969-1973, 1979-1984); William Janzen (1984-1987, 1988-1995); Leonard Enns (Interim)(1987-1988); Robert Shuh (Interim, 1995-1997); Wayne Gilpin (1997); Peter Nikiforuk (1998-2017; Brandon Leis (2017-present). William Janzen and Robert Shantz also filled in on several occasions when Abner Martin was unable to direct because of illness.

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