ST. PETER — Sara McKay was never one to ease into new musical challenges.
When she took over as conductor of the Saint Peter Choral Society, she chose Bach's epic “The St. Matthew Passion” for her first performance.
“You have to be a little crazy to take on such a gigantic project,” said her husband, John McKay.
When she directed the first musical at Sibley East High School, the show featured a live horse on the stage.
Sara McKay's all-in attitude is being recognized today as she is inducted alongside her husband, an accomplished pianist, into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame.
“She was an incredible musician who really wanted to share her love of music with others,” said Saint Peter Choral Society co-director Annette Meeks.
Sara will be honored posthumously. She died from a stroke on Oct. 22, two weeks before she could accept the accolade. She was 79 years old.
Her husband said the Hall of Fame ceremony will be a celebration, not a sorrow.
“She led a good life — a full life,” John said.
The daughter of a Canadian serviceman, Sara moved every year or two across Canada. Her husband said she developed the ability to quickly establish friendships, a skill that later made her a popular member of the St. Peter and Arlington communities.
The couple, married for 55 years, first met at a Montreal middle school. Sara only attended for a year but made a lasting impression on John, and not just because she beat him in a talent show. They met again at a university in Montreal.
“It was like the finger of God was pointing down saying, 'This is the one I've chosen for you,'” John said.
Before they married, Sara completed her studies at a French music school and sang with a choir that recorded for Radio Canada.
They spent four years in Brussels and Sara toured Europe with a 12-member singing group. She continued touring with other groups and recording for Radio Canada after they returned to Canada. John also often was on the road, leaving them both at times temporary single parents.
“We made it work. But I was glad to see her come home,” John said.
She retired from touring and sang with a church choir when they lived in Rochester, New York, for a few years and had their third child.
They settled in St. Peter in 1976. John accepted a job teaching piano at Gustavus Adolphus College. Sara soon after accepted the post of choir director at Union Presbyterian Church in St. Peter.
With a fellow Gustavus professor's wife, Sara co-founded the Saint Peter Community Choir in 1979.
Anyone interested in performing choral masterworks was invited to join.
“Around 60 people showed up — much to their surprise,” John said.
The group later was renamed the Saint Peter Choral Society as its repertoire grew more advanced.
But singers still did not have to audition to gain a spot.
“If anyone wants to kill themselves on one of these huge works and they are willing to dedicate 20 weeks of that, they’re welcome,” Sara told The Free Press last year.
The singers also did not have to pay a membership. And concert attendees who couldn't afford a ticket were often given one for free. Sara didn't want cost to prevent anyone from joining the choir or hearing its music, her co-director said.
“Her goal was to make choral masterworks available to everyone in the community,” Meeks said.
The group gives one annual concert, performing once in St. Peter and brings another performance to a different area community each year.
The choir is accompanied by an orchestra. “She wanted to do them the way composers intended them to be heard — with an orchestra,” John said.
The choir has sung a wide range of masterpieces, Meeks said — from classic's such as Mozart's “Requiem,” to works from living composers such as Gustavus alum Steve Heitzig, to show tunes from greats such as Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Each December the choir takes a break from rehearsals to visit senior facilities in St. Peter. After a performance of Christmas carols, they stay to visit with the residents, John said.
From 1984 to 2006, Sara also taught music in Arlington — at the high school and later the elementary school. She directed several school musicals during her later years there.
Strong organizational skills helped her manage her multiple musical leadership posts, her husband and co-director said. She even found time to make her famous jam, which she often gave out as thank-you gifts or as an excuse to pay a visit to an old friend.
“She was just like the Energizer Bunny,” Meeks said. “She never stopped.”