Sisterly love It's been a quarter-century of faith-based fun for the 80-strong 'rock' stars in Sister Act-inspired Winnipeg choir that sings for others' supper, to the tune of $3.5 million... and they're not done yet

Debbie Siegel has much to be thankful for this weekend.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 05/10/2018 (1584 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Debbie Siegel has much to be thankful for this weekend.

A wife, mother and grandmother, Siegel is also a longstanding member of Sisters of the Holy Rock, a non-profit entertainment outfit that takes its cue from the 1992 film Sister Act, a feel-good comedy about a none-too-talented nuns choir that gets transformed into a melodious unit after a sassy lounge singer (Whoopi Goldberg) joins their convent as part of the FBI’s witness protection program.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Debbie Siegel has been a member of Sisters of the Holy Rock for 18 years.

Since their inception in 1993, Sisters of the Holy Rock who, despite the Sisters tag, are a blend of guys and gals, have raised in the neighbourhood of $3.5 million for various charities and private individuals. As important, the 80-member all-volunteer troupe has helped lift Siegel’s spirits during a particularly tough patch in her life.

“I have cancer and can’t count the number of cards, emails and jokes they’ve sent me in the last while to help keep my spirits up. These people have truly touched my heart,” says Siegel, seated in the reception area of John Black Memorial United Church, the group’s regular Tuesday night rehearsal space. “We usually take the summers off (from performing) but even then, many of us still make a point of getting together for coffee, barbecues… it really is like having a second family.”

Siegel, who successfully auditioned for the group 18 years ago after attending a live performance and thinking, “I want to do that, too,” says she was having “a bit of a rough day” and had to convince herself to attend this evening’s practice. However, the second the Sisters broke into the opening notes of I Will Follow Him, a girl group classic from the early 1960s that takes on an entirely new meaning when belted out by a passel of postulants, she got her second wind.

“People always say music is the best medicine, how it’s good for the soul, and I couldn’t agree more,” she says, speaking loudly enough to be heard over her cohorts’ take on the ‘70s nugget Put Your Hand in the Hand. “I pretty much dragged myself here tonight but all it took was one song until I immediately felt better.”

In May, Mayor Brian Bowman hosted a reception at city hall in honour of Sisters of the Holy Rock’s 25th anniversary, a milestone that boggles the mind of Carole Stone, the group’s founder and longtime artistic director.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Carole Stone is the group’s founder and artistic director.

Let’s face it, Stone says, seated in her neat-as-a-pin North Kildonan split-level; when she was tasked in 1993 to provide entertainment for a fundraising dinner at her parish — at the time she was the choir director at Grey Street United Church — she was certain persuading her charges to mimic the then-popular flick Sister Act by singing pop tunes while posing as nuns would be a one-off.

And that likely would have been the case if one person in the audience hadn’t enjoyed the concert as much as he did. At the end of the evening, a man associated with the Kiwanis Club of Winnipeg approached her, raving about what he’d just witnessed. He said he wanted to book the choir for his organization’s banquet. Stone ran the proposition past the others, who all agreed it sounded divine. One month later there they were again, belting out Motown favourites such as My Guy, albeit with slightly altered lyrics — “Nothing you can say can tear me away from my God” — more in keeping with their heavenly guises.

Encouraged by a second positive reaction, Stone concluded they might just be on to something. They promptly christened themselves Sisters of the Holy Rock, “rock” being a play on Stone’s surname.

“Since Day 1, when you come to our show we want you to feel good, forget the problems of the day and have a good time,” says Stone, whose stage name is Reverend Mother Sister Whoopee Stone. “We have fun but we’re certainly not making fun ‘of.’ I was taught by nuns and have great respect for the church.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The sisterhood has a tight bond — Sylvia Banfield gets a hug from Lynne Erickson at a rehearsal.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. start of a Saturday night performance at the Lorette Curling Rink — the proceeds of which will assist the construction of a new seniors’ residence in the southeastern Manitoba community — Sisters of the Holy Rock are holed up in a makeshift dressing room where assistant director Roberta McLean is putting them through a series of vocal exercises.

Reaching for a bottle of water after one final warmup, 15-year veteran Bill Osachuk says he’s sung with the Sisters so long, he can’t recall the last time he had butterflies prior to going on stage.

“The thing is, we enjoy it as much as the audience does,” says Osachuk who, in the latter half of tonight’s concert, is slated to perform a duet with another bro, uh… sister, a rendition of the Willie Nelson-Julio Iglesias ditty To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.

Equally amusing: Osachuk lets slip he’s the one who, years ago, came up with the idea to cover the Beach Boys’ Kokomo while rocking a hula skirt and coconut bra, a highlight of every Sisters show to this day.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Sandy Sullivan (right) and Melanie Spulnick go over some moves before the show.

Based on advance ticket sales, close to 250 people are expected to take in tonight’s performance, which will run close to 100 minutes. That’s a sizable crowd, Osachuk concurs, but nothing close to the largest audience they’ve played in front of to date.

“Ten years ago or so, we drew 700 people to a show at the Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks. Somebody from the local Kiwanis club was there and immediately booked us for a return engagement, at which time we sold the joint out, close to 2,400 people,” he says, breaking into a grin when asked about his wedding band.

“True story: after seeing me on stage for the first time in my full habit, my wife said, ‘I know I always told you I wanted a sister, but seriously, Bill — this is a bit much.’”

During the group’s genesis, Stone gleefully accepted all comers, whether or not they could carry a tune. For a while now, though, she and her team of executives have been much more discriminating, putting interested parties through an extended audition phase. Step 1 is learning a chunk of the Sisters’ almost-80-song repertoire, which is dotted with Broadway tunes, rock ‘n’ roll classics, even cornball television theme songs such as Happy Days and The Brady Bunch. Only in the case of the latter, “the nunly bunch.”

“We have a couple gals in our group who have made up training CDs, so if you are a soprano, for example, we would give you the disc so you could learn your parts at your leisure, by singing along in the car or while you’re drying the dishes,” she says. “Once you think you’ve got the songs down pat, I do a voice check to make sure you can sing on key and also that you can sing harmony.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The Sisters of the Holy Rock rehearse Tuesdays at the John Black Memorial United Church.

One of Stone’s other duties is helping develop the between-numbers banter that often has audience members in stitches. Sister Michelle Amnesia, a ditzy nun who has trouble recalling her name, never mind what town they’re visiting, is a perennial crowd darling as are the Cleverlies, three male members billed as Clev, Earl and Lee who, in the front half of the show, blaze through a medley of toe-tapping Everly Brothers hits.

“We also have one fellow, Marcel St. Jacques, who performs a serious gospel song, One Pair of Hands. Almost without fail, every time he sings it we look out into the crowd and see somebody reaching for a Kleenex, somebody who holds that song dear,” she says, pointing out male members who sport facial hair wear a priest’s cassock versus a nun’s gown, to avoid appearing sacrilegious.

As for the real, devout McCoy, Stone says there have been definitely been nights when ministers and nuns, even a bishop or two, have taken in their show. In March, they were invited to perform two concerts at the Caboto Centre on Wilkes Avenue for a pair of standing-room-only events saluting the career of Father Sam Argenziano, the longtime priest at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church.

Stone says it was actually a member of the clergy who granted them their signature line years ago when he described them as “talented and teasing, fun and frolicking and holy and hilarious.”

•••

Lynn Ohlson guesses it was early in the Sisters’ tenure when she saw them for the first time. She enjoyed the concert, no doubt about it, but she didn’t consider signing on until a few years later, when she attended a second performance with her mother and aunt in tow.

“I have sung a lot in my life and these people absolutely blew me away,” says Ohlson, a palliative-care nurse with a strong classical music background. “They were so connected; you could just tell they loved being on stage together.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Group president Lynn Ohlson: ‘You could just tell they loved being on stage together’

Ohlson, the group’s president for three years running, says people join the Sisters for various reasons. Many used to belong to a school or church choir and are looking for an opportunity to be in front of a live audience again. Others are seeking the sort of camaraderie that naturally develops from weekly rehearsals and hours-long bus trips as far as Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. (One time, an RCMP officer flagged down their bus on the Trans-Canada Highway; the first question out of his mouth was whether there was any open liquor on board to which one of the ladies, in her most angelic voice, replied, “Oh no, my child.”)

Six years ago Perry Rubenfeld, a teacher at Sun Valley School, was attending a meeting at St. Stephen United Church. He found it increasingly hard to concentrate, thanks to a choir in an adjacent hall running through Do You Hear the People Sing from his “all-time favourite musical,” Les Misérables.

Seconds after his meeting ended, he poked his head inside the room where the singing was coming from. Stone, positioned near the door, asked if she could help him. They chatted a bit and after discovering he was an accomplished tenor, the choir director “started to drool,” Rubenfeld says with a chuckle.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Perry Rubenfeld (centre) is also known as Sister Merry Perry.

“Here I am, a Jew dressed up as a Roman Catholic nun portraying an African-American pop star. There are so many things wrong with that scenario hell probably won’t even take me.” – Perry Rubenfeld

He spent the next month or two memorizing the group’s setlist. He passed his audition with flying colours, at which point Stone congratulated him, telling him the next step would be to try on his habit. “My what?” he asked, suddenly looking confused.

“I’d only ever seen the group at rehearsal, where everybody is in their street clothes. So I was like, ‘A nun’s habit, are you serious? I’m Jewish,” says the physical education instructor.

Rubenfeld who, night after night, brings the house down with his version of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, white glove, moonwalk and all, says despite the fact he comes from a very religious background, family members have been OK with his “conversion” thus far.

“Here I am, a Jew dressed up as a Roman Catholic nun portraying an African-American pop star. There are so many things wrong with that scenario hell probably won’t even take me.”

•••

One of the first things Sisters of the Holy Rock did after forming their executive committee 25 years ago was discuss what to do with the honorariums people were paying them to perform. It was unanimously agreed the money should go to those less fortunate so, after spending what was needed on equipment such as microphones, risers and get-ups, they turned their attention to assisting others.

“We deal primarily with requests that come in through members of the group, each of which we check out thoroughly, of course,” Stone says, listing the Lieutenant Governor’s Make a Difference Community Award, the Manitoba Lotteries Volunteer Award and the City Heroes Award as some of the honours bestowed upon the Sisters through the years.

“We had a memorable one not too long ago, the family of twin boys, one of which was sick with a rare disease. The father, I think he was only 45 years old, had to quit his job because they were basically living at the hospital so we decided to give them a donation,” she says. “When he came to the door I introduced myself, saying we understand you’re going through a challenging time and we’d like to help. He said, ‘But I don’t even know you,’ to which I said, ‘I know, but this is what we do.’ He opened the envelope and just about fell to his knees, he was so touched.”

When asked whether Sisters of the Holy Rock have another 25 years in the tank, Stone says that depends on a number of factors. While past incarnations of the group have included people as young as 25 or 30, the mean age of the present membership is probably closer to double that.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Brother Brent Thomas performs during a show in Lorette.

“We hate to see anybody leave but age is always a factor,” she goes on. “When you’re 60 or 70 you obviously don’t move the same way you did when you were 40, or you’re not physically able to stand in place for the hour and 40 minutes our shows run. Plus we don’t hold songbooks and sometimes your memory isn’t as good as it once was, either.”

And while she downplays how busy the group is compared to years past when they often performed two or three times a week, nine months out of the year — they don’t accept bookings in December, July and August— she admits there are only a few fall dates open. Fall 2019, that is.

“There was a two-year waiting period in the early days but now, because we’ve been around for such a long time, that’s certainly not the case. But what continually amazes me is how many people say they’ve seen us five or six times already. I always wonder why a person would want to go to the same show six times but they do, bless their heart.”

On Oct. 14, Sisters of the Holy Rock will be in Holland, where they’re booked for a matinee performance in support of Holland United Church. Seven days later they’ll be in Whitemouth taking part in a fundraiser for the Whitemouth Lions Club. For more dates, go to www.sistersoftheholyrock.com.

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

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David Sanderson

Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.

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