Betty Empringham of St. Catharines, Ont., retired from her church choir last fall after about 90 years. She said she didn’t want any fuss about her departure, so when the soprano was honoured at a post-worship celebration at Silver Spire United, the large cake read: “No fuss.” “I didn’t do it to set any records,” Empringham says of her long tenure. “I just loved singing in the choir.”
Empringham, who turned 98 last month, was baptized at St. Paul Street United — now part of Silver Spire United after a three-church merger in 2008 — and began singing in the junior choir at the age of eight. “We had a wonderful choir director when I was growing up. We had 50 or more in the junior choir,” she says. “I stayed on from there, just went up into the adult choir.” She retired when failing eyesight meant she could no longer read the music for anthems.
Also a talented pianist, Empringham regularly joined her minister, Rev. Jane Capstick, for worship services at a local nursing home until about two years ago. She has also sung in the city’s symphony choir and in a local women’s choir over the years — but the church remains her most enduring musical connection.
True to form, Capstick says Empringham took advantage of her retirement celebration to make a short speech about the choir, encouraging anyone interested in music to join. She passed her love on to the next generation, too: her son John is still active at Silver Spire United and is part of the choir’s bass section.
Empringham has seen lots of change in the songs sung at church over the years. “Some of the stuff that we sing in the old Hymn Book is not my theology anymore,” because the words focus so much on sin and dying, she says. And although she feels songs in the newer Voices United hymnbook aren’t always as catchy, “the words in them are fantastic.”
“Music has been a big part of my life in the church,” she says. “You just do what you like; I did it because I enjoy it. I miss going to choir practice.”
This story first appeared in The United Church Observer’s February 2019 issue with the title “Soprano retires after 90 years.”