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Heaven on Earth: Bon Homme Community Easter Cantata celebrates 75 years of song

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Julie Jaeger, of Wagner, directs the Bon Homme Community Easter Cantata while Barb Van Gerpen, of Avon, accompanies on piano during a recent rehearsal at First Baptist Church in Avon. The cantata's final performance is April 20, Easter Sunday, at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield. (Candy DenOuden/Republic)2 / 2

Easter really is something to sing about.

For members of the Bon Homme Community Easter Cantata, a group celebrating its 75th birthday this year, that’s especially true.

“I love Easter. It’s my favorite holiday,” said Julie Jaeger, director of the cantata, which is defined as “a vocal composition with an instrumental accompaniment.” The Bon Homme Community Easter Cantata combines its mixed-group choral numbers with narration and occasional soloists or duets/trios.

Jaeger is one of many long-time cantata participants. Marsha Hubner, president of the Bon Homme Community Easter Cantata committee, said this year’s performances, which started Tuesday and continue through Easter Sunday, mark the 75th consecutive year for the group.

Hubner said the cantata was organized in 1939 under the direction of Harlan Moen, who was the principal at Avon School. Rehearsals are still typically held in Avon, but the cantata now has singers from many communities in the area. Each year, the cantata that will be performed is selected by the cantata officers. This year’s weaves together songs from performances through the years, dating from 1983 through 2013.

It is a non-denominational group, bringing together Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and more from all walks of life, and from all across the area -- including Wagner, Tripp, Springfield and even Nebraska.

“It’s really, really a wonderful thing to be involved with all other denominations,” Hubner said. “It helps us remember that we are celebrating the same Savior.”

Jaeger agreed, saying “This is the closest thing to Heaven on Earth, because we’re all these different faiths singing praises to the Lord.”

Jaeger, of Wagner, had to research how many years she’s been involved with the group.

“I know it’s not 75,” she said with a laugh.

It’s closer to 25 -- she’s directed every year since 1988, plus a couple of non-consecutive years prior, and has sung in it in the past. For Jaeger, it’s all about the message -- a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“Lord, it’s just all about you,” she says in a reverent tone as she leads the group in a prayer following a recent rehearsal.

That same reverence and sincerity permeates her high-energy direction of the group, mixed with equal parts choir director and good-natured jokester.

“I thought a helicopter was landing,” she quips, referring to sound system issues that briefly invaded rehearsal.

As a woman with professional music training -- she was a music major -- Jaeger pulls no punches when the group is off-pitch, or needs to enunciate a word more clearly.

“What in the world is a ‘crow’? ” she asks with a smile, trying to impress upon the vocalists the importance of pronouncing the “n” in “crown.”

“It’s one of those big, black birds,” someone from the group fires back.

It’s a typical snapshot of the camaraderie that pervades the group’s interactions between songs, or before or after practice.

“Through the years, we have become a very close-knit family,” Jaeger said. “For many of us, we don’t get to see each other until we come back. It’s just so good to see those people again.”

Evidence of that is in the numbers of members -- this year there are about 70 -- and the sheer longevity of many of those members. History compiled by the 2014 cantata officers says it’s not unusual for members to stay involved for 10, 20, 30 or even 45 years.

Several members noted how they relish the opportunity to meet new people, or to reconnect with people they only see at their annual cantata rehearsals.

“There’s people I look forward to seeing again every year when we get back to practicing,” Hubner said.

Hubner, who has been with the cantata for about 30 years, said there are many things she loves about being involved in the group. One is the reprieve from often dreary South Dakota winters, since rehearsals typically start in January or February.

“Once you start doing it, it enhances the expectation and excitement of the Easter season,” she said.

“It’s a sign of spring,” Verlin Buchholz agreed.

Buchholz, of Tripp, said he’s been part of the cantata since 1971, and his wife, LaDonn, also sings in the choir. It’s a time commitment -- the group typically practices every Sunday, starting in January or February and continuing until Easter -- but it’s one he’s glad to make.

“This is part of my life. It’s just so much fun,” he said. “I can’t imagine not doing this.”

For some, it’s perhaps the only opportunity they have as adults to continue singing in a choir.

“I enjoy singing. I enjoy the camaraderie,” said John Voigt, of Avon. Another longtime member, Voigt said he’s been involved “mostly since 1975,” and his wife, Myrna, also sings in the group. He remembers the 50th anniversary of the group, and described the “spirit of the people” as the undercurrent keeping such a dedicated crew coming back year after year.

Over the years it’s progressed from a single microphone at a single performance at Avon High School to several performance in multiple towns. Several gave credit to Jaeger’s direction and energy as a factor in helping the group remain vibrant through the years.

“Julie is very gifted. She gets the most out of us,” Hubner said, adding that Jaeger’s equally talented accompanist, Barb Van Gerpen, adds another dimension to the group.

Van Gerpen, of Avon, said she has been part of the cantata almost every year since she was 14, but she grew up watching her parents sing in the choir every year. She’s not sure how many years she’s been accompanying, but joked she came along with Jaeger “as part of the package.”

“I love it. It’s a big part of the Easter season for me,” Van Gerpen said. “I can’t describe the feeling -- when I’ve been given the privilege to be the accompanist, I feel the most blessed of the entire group, because I get to hear them sing it right at me, and it’s like God is speaking that message right to me.”

And while Hubner described the cantata as made up of amateurs, it’s no rag-tag group or simple two-part harmonies. Buchholz said the material has increased in difficulty over the years -- and the cantata has risen to the challenge every time.

“There’s some serious talent in this group,” Buchholz said.

But, most importantly for those involved, is the message.

“I just believe that God puts it together. It’s because of what it is that it has continued,” Van Gerpen said. “The message itself is truth.”