by Jessica Langdon
TOPEKA — Alfred Gutierrez’s mother Ascension Gutierrez was 90 when she died in September, but Alfred believes she would have cherished the harmony of the much younger voices that sang at her funeral.
Those beautiful voices belonged to students in middle school — fifth through eighth grades — at Holy Family School in Topeka.
“It was a moving feeling,” said Gutierrez. “They were singing for her.”
The choir started small, with the intention of having students sing at school Masses and other events, and has grown into something far greater.
This entire year, members of the choir have been lending their voices at local funerals when a family needs help with music.
That detail can be overlooked or overwhelming when a family is already dealing with a heartrending loss.
“Our choir enjoys helping the family in their time of need and while they’re mourning,” said Marisol Marcelo, an eighth-grader at Holy Family.
Choir is an elective, so no one is required to take this class.
That means every one of the 23 students in choir this semester accepted both the privileges and the responsibilities by signing up.
“It’s just a neat opportunity for the children to provide service for the community, and it’s really blossomed into something special,” said Lee Schmidt, Holy Family principal.
Kobe Sanders, an eighth-grader at Holy Family, has attended the funerals of his aunt and a grandparent, and he brings that personal understanding to the church when he sings at funerals for other families.
“I feel like when we sing, it helps the families take it in and realize what’s happening,” said Kobe.
He hopes their songs also offer the families some hope and peace about their loved ones — some comfort because “they are going to heaven.”
Gutierrez admits he leans toward the traditional and was skeptical when he first heard about this young choir as he helped plan for his mother’s funeral at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Topeka.
But when Rita Bennett, Holy Family School secretary and middle school choir instructor, invited him to hear for himself when they sang another funeral, he was impressed.
About the same time, Gutierrez attended a youth Mass in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and again, the idea of young singers just seemed right.
“I was just touched by their singing, their young voices, and it all reminded me of my mom,” said Gutierrez. “My mom was a big supporter of the children.”
Although Ascension lived in Colorado prior to her death, the family wanted her to be buried beside Gutierrez’s father in Topeka.
So her funeral was held at Our Lady of Guadalupe, which had been her parish for a long time.
“I couldn’t believe how well-prepared and versed they were for how young they were,” said Gutierrez of the singers.
Their poise and respect are simply part of what these choir students do, whether they’re in class, singing at a funeral, or simply out in the community.
It’s a testament to the esteem in which they hold Bennett, both as their instructor and as a person.
“She always reminds us we’re representing Holy Family — ‘Do it well,’” Marisol said Bennett always tells them.
Bennett’s commitment to service, the school, her church and her family have certainly captured her students’ attention.
About two years ago, Bennett agreed to add something new to her plate — leading a new choir elective.
As choir director at the parish, she was a natural choice.
She had eight students for what started as a nine-week class, and soon realized that, to have a successful choir, it would take at least a full semester and a larger group.
So, the course was extended and as the original eight students spread the word about how much they liked choir, their numbers swelled.
It wasn’t until her own family experienced a loss, however, that the group sang a funeral liturgy.
Indeed, the first funeral the choir sang was Bennett’s father’s.
Her dad got sick unexpectedly in 2013.
About the same time, she had really come to love a song called “Blessings,” by Laura Story, and thought it would be a beautiful addition to the choir’s repertoire.
As the students learned the song, they knew her dad’s health was declining.
“They would watch me cry, and they would say, ‘Are you OK?’” said Bennett. “They said, ‘Let’s not sing this song anymore if it’s going to make you cry.’”
It’s a beautiful song, she said, but agreed to put it away for a bit.
But an idea was already humming in Bennett’s heart.
This would be the perfect song for her dad’s funeral. And a recording of it would not suffice.
“I thought, ‘No, no, these kids have meant so much to me,’” she said.
She didn’t tell them her plan as she coached them.
“They learned it really well,” she said.
And when her dad passed away over Christmas break this past year, she called each student.
“I have a favor to ask of you, and I want to know if you would be able to come to my dad’s funeral to sing ‘Blessings,’” she told her students.
“They all said yes. They all came,” she said. “They all sang like little angels. We made it through. I think they cried more than I did.”
And they gave her strength.
Bennett was so moved by the grace she saw in her students at the Mass, she and others soon started putting together a way to reach out to other families in their time of need.
Principal Schmidt was the first on board.
He drives the bus that transports the group, and even the bus ride has offered a glimpse into the spirit of this choir.
“On the way back, they’re all singing,” he said. “It’s just beautiful, just joining together, just impromptu.”
At the funerals, the choir is seated near the family in the church, and the students can see the people they’re helping.
“I think about them as my family — like, ‘What would I be going through if that just happened?’” said Victoria Burghart, a seventh-grader at Holy Family.
She thinks of people she has lost, and wants to cry when she sees the tears of the people grieving.
“I know how it is to lose someone,” said Victoria.
Mya Tompkins, a seventh-grader, wasn’t sure if it was for her at first.
“I went to my first funeral, and I knew that it was the right place for me,” said Mya. “I saw how the family was responding to our singing, and it just made me really feel like I was . . . actually helping people through their loss.”
“I’ve seen a couple of kids, as they go by, extend their hand to the family,” said Bennett.
And after a service is over, they offer their help in other ways, such as moving flowers to the activities center.
Some families have sent Facebook messages to Holy Family; others have sent cards. A few have even come to the school in person to thank the choir.
The families’ circumstances and their words might differ. But they share the same message.
“In a time of grief, you provided a beautiful service for the family,” said Schmidt.
“They’re always very thankful.”
Letting their light shine
Bennett hopes to see her young songbirds continue singing once they leave Holy Family for high school.
Some already have their sights set on joining the Hayden Singers.
But the choir has become more than just a place to sing, and the students’ harmonies in song reflect the harmony they have struck as a group.
In the school office, Bennett often catches notes echoing through the hallway when some of her students break out in song passing between classrooms.
These students don’t simply sing together. They’re friends.
Choir is a safe place where they can talk about what’s going on in their day — and know that that will be as far as it goes.
The impact of this experience, however, stretches far beyond the classroom or the choir loft.
The students say they’ve learned respect for themselves, their instructor and others.
Discovering their voices — and putting them to such good use — has built confidence as well, believes Bennett.
But she also hopes that serving this way has sparked a lifetime of service in some capacity.
Each voice is different, explains eighth-grader Lesley Ayala, just as God intended. And each adds something special.
But she doesn’t worry about the collective sound when she’s in the moment.
“I actually just sing my heart out,” said Lesley. “You’re singing to Jesus, anyway.
“When we sing, they say it’s a prayer.”