A long tradition of untraditional music ends this weekend when the folk/rock/jazz group Discernment sings its last mass for the people of St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church.
The six-member worship band -- thought to be the first of its kind in Winnipeg -- packs up its instruments for good after this Sunday's evening mass.
"Our lives have changed, people have different commitments happening and it's time (to retire)," explains Rita (Kelly) Doerr, who began singing at the 9 p.m. mass in 1969, when she was just 14.
"When you think about it, I don't know anyone who volunteers for 44 years."
The congregation has had nearly two years to prepare for this day, since Discernment switched to leading music only twice a month in order to allow other musicians to fill the space.
Doerr, her husband Jeff, both 57, and long-time vocalist Eileen Grant-MacLeod all began performing as teenagers, growing up in front of the congregation as they've married, developed careers and had families, all while maintaining their weekly commitment to the Sunday evening mass. They formed the nucleus of the group for four decades, with more than two dozen others joining and leaving at various times over the years.
Current members include Daryl Torchia, and Keith Macpherson, 34, of Keith and Renee fame, who joined the group as a teenager 19 years ago. Retired drummer Dan Leonhardt returned recently for the group's final months at St. Ignatius.
"I'm eternally thankful God gave me the gift of my voice," says Grant-MacLeod, 52, tearful at the thought of the tightly knit group disbanding.
"It gives me the opportunity through that song to connect to God."
Over the years, connecting through music is what Discernment has been all about. After the initial Sunday evening mass experiment turned into a regular gig, the musicians adapted popular music, wrote their own songs, recorded four albums and developed a repertoire of favourites, including songs by Winnipeg singer/songwriter Steve Bell.
"As the church has matured since Vatican II, the music ministry has matured as well," explains guitarist Torchia, 63. "We pay attention to the readings now and the lyrics are like a second homily."
That musical homily -- and the passion of the folk performing it -- attracted Winn Leslie back into the Roman Catholic fold after a 25-year absence.
"The thing that touched my heart was the singing," she says of attending the evening mass for the first time in 1973. "They (Discernment) sort of opened me up and welcomed me back."
And over four decades, they've welcomed young Catholics from across the city and people from other denominations.
"They helped my ministry so much," explains Rev. Robert Foliot, priest at St. Ignatius from 1976 to 1991, who plans to travel from Toronto to attend the farewell service.
"I'm just an ordinary priest, but backed up by their music I was able to help people reconnect with their deepest values and their relationship to God."
The band members know it will be hard to sing their goodbyes, but they leave knowing their ministry has shaped them as musicians and as Catholics.
"Music is a form of prayer," says Jeff Doerr. "For me, there's no question music is the way I worship, the way I pray."