A Perham-area tradition to return after three years: the community Lenten cantata

Though the Community Lenten Choir has been around for over 30 years, they took a break for several years due to the pandemic. Now, however, they're back.

Cantata choir
The Community Lenten Choir will return in 2023 after a several-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perham Focus file photo

PERHAM — The COVID-19 pandemic brought many Perham-area traditions and events to a halt when it first peaked in 2020. Among the many traditions put on hold was the Community Lenten Choir, which has been performing Lenten cantatas annually for about 35 years. After a Christmas performance at the end of 2022, they're back and ready to spread the joy of Lent for 2023.

"We're telling the passion of Christ, so kind of the Holy Week from Palm Sunday coming into Jerusalem to Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper, Jesus dying on the cross and then his resurrection," said Sarah Carlstrom, this year's cantata director. "It's really telling that whole story."

This year's cantata, "A Journey to Hope" by Joseph Martin, will incorporate both speaking parts and different choral songs, all sung by community members from various churches. A unique aspect of the Community Lenten Choir is that members of different churches all come together to tell the story of Christ and the Holy Week. Every detail from lighting to movements to speaking parts combine to tell a story.

"It's a full story," said Keith Hepola, a member of the choir for about 12 years. "This is a whole message. I think one of the great things is that you're getting people who are passionate about it, who are very interested in it. They're going to take a few hours of the week off for the next six weeks to come. It's people who enjoy doing this."

Sarah Carlstrom (left) will be the director of this year's performance, and Keith Hepola (right) has been singing in the choir for many years.
Elizabeth Vierkant / Perham Focus

Both Hepola and Carlstrom are driven by this love. Hepola, with his years involved in the choir, and Carlstrom, as a pastor at New Creation Lutheran Church with a passion for choral music. Carlstrom is new to the Community Lenten Choir. She sang in their brand-new 2022 Christmas performance, and it was there that she fell in love. This is her first year directing the Lent performance.


She does, however, have a history with directing. As the director for 2023's Holy Week performance, her job is to listen to the music and put what she hears into words and motions that convey the message of the performance.

"There's something about live music," Carlstrom said. "It's living and breathing. It has mistakes, but that's part of the beauty of it too. Because if you go in a studio and you record, you can go a million times and have a perfect (version of the music). But it's not live. It's not breathing and living, and I think that's really where telling this amazing message, but in music that's live, comes alive."

Gary Bach
A previous performance by the Community Lenten Choir.
Perham Focus file photo

Hepola agreed that listening to a recording is never quite the same as experiencing music live. Not only are the performers experiencing it together, but those watching get to experience it too. Everything from movement to tone can draw a viewer into the story.

"People are talking in the sanctuary, but when we start walking up, it just gets quiet," Hepola shared. "It's like the anticipation, and you just get excited at that point. For the people there, especially in churches or a sanctuary, it fills with sound. It's kind of like a full sensory (experience) … you can see when you look out at them (the audience), they're very focused. There's this little smile on their faces. They're enjoying it, but they're kind of going through the song with you."

Carlstrom and Hepola strongly encourage anyone interested in participating to come to one of their practices. Just going and trying it out doesn't have to be a commitment, they explained. Anyone with an interest in choral music can come along, even if they'd rather watch than perform. Those with little to no experience are also welcome. The first practice will be Sunday, Feb. 19 at 4 p.m. at Calvary Lutheran Church in Perham. Rehearsals will be at the same time every Sunday through March 19.

Dress rehearsals are March 26 at 4 p.m. at Trinity Lutheran Church in New York Mills and March 31 at 3 p.m. at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Perham. The Trinity performance will be on Sunday, April 2 at 3 p.m., and the St. Paul's performance will be on the same day at 7 p.m.

For more information, contact Sara Carlstrom at 320-226-5676 or, or contact Julie Adams at 218-457-1356 or

"Come try it out," Hepola concluded. "You will not be disappointed."

Elizabeth (she/her), 24, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
What To Read Next
Get Local