WOODBURY, Minn. — Board members of Spirit Song Choir describe the past four months as like being "strapped to the front of a bullet-nose train."

Maybe that's because, in less than half a year, the choir went from being merely an idea to having more than 120 members.

The choir is directed by Cottage Grove resident Mary Reimann, who spent 31 years as a church music director. Its members, aged 6 months to 81 years, have begun performing regularly at senior living facilities in Woodbury, including St. Therese, Stonecrest and Woodbury Senior Living.

Spirit Song Choir also had its first public performance Dec. 15 at Woodbury Lutheran Church, hosting the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert. A freewill offering raised $3,524 for Christian Cupboard Emergency Food Shelf, which director Jessica Francis said would provide 10,500 healthy meals for community members.

About 75 members sang at the concert, along with a choir of 17 children, four dancers and 10 instrumentalists, including strings from Woodbury High School, and a piano accompanist. They were joined by choirs from East Ridge and Woodbury high schools.

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Choir director Mary Vaaler Reimann introduces the final song of the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia
Choir director Mary Vaaler Reimann introduces the final song of the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

Reimann said the choir often performs traditional songs like "You Are My Sunshine," "This Little Light of Mine" and "Amazing Grace" at senior living facilities because residents like to sing along or clap or tap their toes. They also have a "strong core" of sacred music but mix in a wide range of secular songs as well, sometimes in different languages.

"The idea is that they lift the spirit," Reimann said.

Members of Spirit Song Choir spend Wednesday mornings at the Willows, a memory care facility at Woodbury Senior Living. They perform and lead about 25 residents in song, followed by a small communion service from campus director of spiritual services Basil Owens.

"It's beautiful to watch the interactions that they have with people, but also the music itself is just so touching — so powerful to see people come alive," Owens said. "It's been an amazing, amazing run with them."

The choir is ecumenical, meaning its members come from various Christian faiths. What unites them is not necessarily singing, but a love of choir — some members claim not to be able to sing but joined because they love choral music, the community of a choir or because they just want to help out.

Dancers perform during the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. The four dancers who performed at the concert also sing with Spirit Song Choir. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia
Dancers perform during the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. The four dancers who performed at the concert also sing with Spirit Song Choir. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

The choir has a rule that members can't leave a rehearsal or performance without meeting someone new — still a relatively easy task, given the size of the group. But the rule speaks to a larger goal Reimann and her fellow board members — Monica Hamer, Pam McGlinch and Peg Regruth — have for the group, which is to be a vehicle for connection in the community.

"Oftentimes I will look around and people are crying as they're singing because it's such a spiritual, emotional experience, and I think that gives us the ability to come together as a community," McGlinch said. "We need more of that in the world today, and this is a way for us to come together as adults and do that, express that."

Hamer described the choir as a way to "break down some boundaries."

"We tend to be set in our own realms, and this brings together people from a lot of different walks of life," Hamer said.

An 'all-are-welcome approach'

The choir has mainly grown by word of mouth, Reimann said. Although most members are from Cottage Grove and Woodbury, a small number come from Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as Hudson and Somerset in Wisconsin.

Spirit Song Choir was inspired in part by Partners in Praise Girls Choir, Reimann said, a Minneapolis-based group made up of 50-60 girls from around the Twin Cities metro. Reimann had just stepped aside from three decades of directing church music when several people suggested she form a community choir.

"It wasn’t something that would have occurred to me on my own, and I was initially hesitant," Reimann said. "I think it was only because five different people shared the same idea with me, over about two weeks, that I finally realized that perhaps I should consider it. It has been a true team effort on every level."

Reimann and some friends spread the word about a gathering at the fire pit at Reimann's home. When more than 50 people responded to the invitation, the group decided they needed a larger rehearsal space and reached out to St. Therese of Woodbury to see if the chapel was available. It became the choir's place for regular rehearsals: every Thursday from 7-9 p.m. Rehearsals are televised on St. Therese's "chapel channel," and some residents regularly stop by to watch in person, Reimann said.

Instrumentalists from Woodbury High School accompanied the Spirit Song Choir during the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia
Instrumentalists from Woodbury High School accompanied the Spirit Song Choir during the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia

The choir recently became a 501(c)(3) organization, and everyone involved with the choir is a volunteer. Board members say they don't require any dues and want to keep the choir free to join, but like any organization, it needs money to survive: sheet music alone for such a large choir can cost up to $300 per song. Members can donate if they choose, and the public can donate or sponsor a singer through the choir's website.

But "people have been exceedingly generous," Reimann said, adding that the group surpassed its fundraising goal for the year by 50% about a month ago. This has allowed the choir to fully focus on the music and host free concerts — and hopefully purchase durable name tags in the near future, McGlinch said.

Hamer, McGlinch and Regruth credit the choir's cohesion and success over such a short span of time to Reimann's leadership.

"She knows her craft, and she has brought us to this point. Without her inspiration and her skills, we wouldn't be where we are," Regruth said. "She has the ability to find people's talents that they don't know they have and she brings them to the forefront and she uses them, and she helps everybody to find their best self."

The board members said they consistently have about 65-75 people at each rehearsal. When asked if there was a point at which they might grow too large and have to start turning people away, they quickly said no.

"I can't imagine saying no — that's just not who we are," said Hamer. "We just make it work, and it always does."

Spirit Song Youth members perform during the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. Many in the group are children of adult Spirit Song Choir members. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia
Spirit Song Youth members perform during the "Sing We All Noel!" Christmas concert Dec. 15, 2019, at Woodbury Lutheran Church. Many in the group are children of adult Spirit Song Choir members. Hannah Black / RiverTown Multimedia