Sarah Dennis, quiet force behind singing Dennis Family, dies at 80

She didn’t form her nine children into a singing group for fame and money.

Sarah Dennis simply recognized their talent and thought they should share it with their community in the service of Jesus Christ.

The kids were reluctant at first. She wanted them to sing to sick people, and kids don’t like to hang around sick people.

But gradually they began to understand and embrace their mother’s vision for them. Today, the Dennis Family is a Wichita legend, singing hymns, spirituals and gospel songs at churches and events locally and around the country.

Mrs. Dennis, the quiet force behind the group, died last week at age 80.

“Not only were her children for her and Dad to love,” said daughter Lori Dennis, “she knew we were a gift she wanted to give back to the world and teach us that we have a responsibility and accountability to others.”

The Dennis Family performed its 28th annual Christmas concert in December. The concert raises money for charities, draws a standing-room-only crowd of 1,000 people each year, and is an event that for some officially kicks off the holiday season.

“People just can’t wait until it happens each year,” said Jimmie Morgan, a member of the St. James Missionary Baptist Church, where Mrs. Dennis’ husband, J.P. Dennis Jr., has been pastor for more than 50 years. “It grows and grows. Without it, it would be missed tremendously.”

The group — six women and three men — will continue to perform to preserve Mrs. Dennis’ legacy. That legacy is one of humility and service to others, combined with an ability to motivate them and keep them going, they say.

“Every year when the concerts are presented, it’s always with her encouragement, and remembering that it’s something she wanted us to stay committed to,” Lori Dennis said.

The Dennis Family also has provided backup vocals on a blues album, traveled to perform in churches around the country, sung on local television news shows, and appeared at Wichita events like the annual meeting of the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Big Top Blues Festival, the Wichita River Festival, Shepherds Fold Ministries Day of Renewal, the Wichita Black Arts Festival, the American Red Cross annual awards dinner, and Focus on the Family National Day of Prayer.

The oldest son, Larry Dennis, said the family was inspired simply by the way their mother lived her life.

“She had a thing where she put everybody else first. It seemed like she cared about other kids as much as her family. Seeing her live her life that way was encouraging. No matter what you were going through, she always had a way that made you think you could get past it.”

Mrs. Dennis helped raise funds to benefit the St. James renovation and expansion through her “Sweet Specialties” baking business. She also taught Sunday school at the church, was an inspirational speaker at seminars and workshops, and received awards for her service and ministry.

The oldest daughter in the family, Annie Montgomery, said her mother and father, who were married for 63 years, were mentors for her and her husband, Lincoln Montgomery, who has been pastor of Tabernacle Bible Church for 25 years.

“As the years went by, I realized it wasn’t just us. A lot of young pastors and wives looked up to them,” she said.

“Mom was a fun person. She loved to laugh and make people feel good. She always liked to make you feel like you were the most special person in the world,” Annie Montgomery said.

“She had a personality of grace toward everybody, no matter their status in life,” Lincoln Montgomery said. “She was probably one of the best examples I’ve seen in terms of living out the faith.”

Terre Johnson, vice president for major gifts at the Wichita State University Foundation and a long-time family friend, said being a pastor’s wife while raising nine children presented challenges that Mrs. Dennis handled well because she was totally selfless and concerned only for others.

“Sister Dennis is the most Christ-like person I’ve ever met in my life,” Johnson said.

The wake for Mrs. Dennis is 6 p.m. Friday at St. James Missionary Baptist Church. Viewing will be from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturday and the funeral at noon Saturday at Tabernacle Bible Church.