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Methodist church choir rejoices in new robes

WORTHINGTON -- They considered the lilies of the field, and after acknowledging they could never compete with those natural beauties, nevertheless decided it was time for an extreme group makeover.

The First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir of Worthington first appeared in their brand-new, cranberry-hued robes and silver stoles on May 18 at a celebratory spring service that featured several anthems sung by the enthusiastic -- and stylishly resplendent -- group.

"I love the new color," expressed Sally Hibma, a choir member at the church since 1964. "We went about selecting them in a pretty diplomatic way, and I think it was a good choice."

Generous support from a few key memorial gifts, as well as from several individual congregants, made the significant investment a reality much more quickly than organizers initially believed would be possible.

"When my mother, Ardith Gussler, died last year, I talked with Pastor Gordon (Orde) about where her memorial money might be best put to use," explained Jodi Stitt, who largely coordinated the robe effort. "Instead of using it for a few things here and there, I thought maybe it could be seed money for a choir robe fund, which I guessed might take about three years to put together.

"Pastor Gordon thought it was a good idea, but he's kind of a 'git 'er done' type of person," laughed Stitt, "so before the end of May we debuted them for the congregation."

A promotional sale at major Christian retail supplier Cokesbury, which offered a significant reduction in the robes' cost, was effective through March 31 and provided additional motivation for moving the project forward.

"People really stepped up to fully fund this effort in a quick fashion," agreed Orde. "They were generous about helping achieve our goal of purchasing new choir robes, and the robes we had enjoyed a long life and served us well."

Longtime choir member Hibma, an alto, remembers the church's robes were blue when she first joined the chorus in the mid-1960s.

"They were followed by the green robes, which must have been around since at least the early 1980s," mused Hibma. "From a distance, the green ones still looked OK, but those of us wearing them knew that many zippers were broken, fabric was fraying and they were generally showing many signs of age."

Soprano Stitt concurs.

"Mine had a wear spot on the front you could nearly see through, and overall they were in pretty bad shape," said Stitt. "My mother prided herself on looking good, and she dressed nicely and was wellgroomed until the day she died, so I know she would want our choir to look as good as possible, too."

Stitt's mother, Ardith Gussler, directed the Methodist choir in Stitt's hometown of Miller, S.D., for many years. While she lived in Worthington for the two years before her death at age 87 in early 2007, she participated as an alto in First United Methodist Church's choir, relishing the weekly rehearsals and Sunday performances.

"When my stepdad was ill for years, mom didn't have as many opportunities for music in her life," reflected Stitt. "After moving here, she resumed playing her organ, and at first, on Wednesday nights, she made supper for Darrell (a bass in the choir) and me because choir practice was at 7 p.m. and I didn't get off work until 6 p.m.

"We suggested she come with us to choir after supper, and soon she did," said Stitt. "She would take her music home and practice it on her organ each week."

The Stitts, who moved to Worthington in 1991, immediately joined First United Methodist Church and continued their involvement with singing -- a lifelong interest for both Darrell and Jodi. Along with the late Esther Hochhalter, Stitt led an effort in the early 1990s to refurbish the already aging green robes by stitching new stoles.

"We had a group sewing project in the church kitchen and fellowship hall," recalled Stitt. "The stoles started out white on one side -- they aged to more of a cream-color in recent years -- and a green-multi on the other."

A final repair job was performed on the green robes a few years ago, at which point the seamstresses in the group believed it was the last time such an operation could be successfully performed on the lot of them.

Fortunately, Stitt was not alone in dedicating her mother's memorial money to the robe project. Among other donors was Dorothy Sietsema, who sang with the choir for many years starting in the late 1950s. She agreed to devote some of the funds given in memory of her late husband, Elwin, to the effort, as well.

"Elwin loved the Methodist church, and we were both always involved in music," related Sietsema. "This was a very meaningful donation, because the organ and choir at our church are very important to us and are things we'd like to see continue.

"During church services, when our kids were growing up, they were always embarrassed because we'd sing out so loudly," laughed Sietsema. "But if you sing out, others around you will join in."

Indeed, this collection of Methodists places a premium on singing and sees the new robes as a worthy accessory to the church's ministry.

"I have sung in this church choir for nearly my entire adult life," admitted Hibma, "and it's a very good part of my life. It's fun, I enjoy the people, and it's one way for me to witness my faith.

"There's a saying that goes, 'Those who sing pray twice,' and that has meaning for me," continued Hibma. "Music can be another expression of prayer, a way to talk to God. I think mom (the late Iris Lester) would have been pleased to know that half of her memorial money went to the choir."

Stitt echoes Hibma's sentiments.

"We laugh and joke at our choir rehearsals, but we always sing because we love God and our relationship with Him," offered Stitt. "I like to see music in the schools encouraged and love to see young people show an interest in singing, because it's one of the few things you can continue through your whole life, even when you're 65 and beyond."

The First United Methodist Church Chancel Choir typically sings at least three Sundays each month from September through May and on occasional Sundays during the summer months.

"We're really excited to add these new robes to our worship services," said Orde. "Our wonderful music ministry will truly be enhanced by these new robes."

Added Hibma, "I've worn out a blue robe and a green one, and I hope I can sing long enough to wear out this maroon one."