Frances Loulla Brown

1909 - 1985

Frances Brown, a singer, spent most of her music career teaching at La Sierra College, now University, conducting choirs and teaching voice and elementary music education classes. She also provided distinguished service at Helderberg College in the early 1950s when she toured with the school choir to great acclaim in South Africa, a first for any college ensemble in the country.

Frances was born in College View, Nebraska, on January 13, 1909, the older of two daughters of Alfred C. and Florence Jencks Brown. She spent her early childhood in Minitare, Nebraska, a small community of 675 persons. From her earliest years, she enjoyed playing the piano. While still in eighth grade, she played piano for services at the local Methodist church.

Brown moved with her family to Arlington, California, in 1923, at the age of fourteen. She attended Southern California Junior College, now La Sierra University, where, following graduation from the academy program, she continued music study at the school and taught piano part-time. She completed a music degree at Pacific Union College in 1931, studying voice under George Greer and singing in his a cappella choir. By this time she was known as a very fine singer as well as an accomplished pianist and exceptional accompanist.

Following graduation from PUC, Brown became the music teacher at the Seventh-day Adventist academy in Arizona where she stayed for four years. She then taught for four years at Loma Linda Academy and another four years in the Los Angeles area at Lynwood Academy. She completed a master's degree in music at the University of Southern California during this time and also studied conducting under John Finley Williamson, conductor of the internationally known Westminster Choir.

Brown did outstanding work with her choirs in the academies. This success, coupled with a rapidly expanding music program at La Sierra College, led to an invitation in 1943 for her to teach voice and assist with the choirs. For the next four years she directed the girls' glee club and taught voice at the college.

In 1947 she accepted an offer to teach at Helderberg College in South Africa. During the next five years, Brown's work with the choir was an unqualified success.  When she took her choir on tour in that country in 1950 it created a sensation. There had never been a touring college choir in South Africa before, and her tour in that year and three years later had a huge impact on both the choir members and those who listened. At the end of her term of service and following the break allowed after serving as a "missionary," she returned to LSC to teach in 1953.

The time at HC was a profoundly moving experience for Brown. In her view, she was returning on a "temporary basis" to LSC and hoped to return to South Africa. She would instead teach voice and elementary music education classes and work with children's choirs for the next nineteen years at LSC, retiring in 1972.

Frances married James Fitch Bernard, M.D. on June 6, 1971, the year before she retired. They were living in Riverside, California, when he died in 1981.  She was residing there when she died on February 18, 1985, at age 76.


Sources: Interview with her sister, Emily J. Brown, a physician, 14 November 2005; Pieter H. Coetzee, "Share Your Faith in South Africa," The Youth's Instructor, March 6, 1951, pgs. 14, 15 (see following); Obituary, Pacific Union Recorder, 30 September 1985; La Sierra College Bulletin description, unknown year, 1950s; Numerous clippings and photographs from South African newspapers sent to me by her sister in 2005, following our interview, all on file; Obituary for Florence Jencks Brown, Pacific Union Recorder, April 3, 1961, pg. 14; California Marriage Index, 1960-1985, Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014,  

The 1950 Helderberg Choir Tour

Frances L. Brown, Conductor

(A summary . . . )

The 1950 Helderberg choir tour in South Africa was a pioneering venture that succeeded beyond all expectations. For three weeks the 60-member group traveled by rail in two coaches to major cities, where they were given extensive press coverage, welcomed warmly by local dignitaries and received enthusiastically by large and, in some instances, overflow audiences.

The program included singing by women's and men's choirs and a male quartet, all drawn from within the a cappella choir, which was the primary performing ensemble. The quartet, known as the Helderberg Harmonists, sang arrangements of spirituals that proved to be very popular with audiences. Mrs. Elsie Watt was also featured in the concerts, playing hymn arrangements on the marimba, an instrument of African origin.

Five large packing cases containing choir robes, music, and the marimba, were constructed so that they could double as choir risers, if auditoriums did not have the needed equipment.

Students studied each evening after supper during an hour-long class in history and geography. Late parties were forbidden, sweets were kept to a minimum, and opportunities for napping and sleeping were provided to minimize the rigors of the 3,800 mile tour and overnight travel by train.

At the time of this tour, HC was the only co-educational institution of its type in the region. Regardless of their financial status, students were expected to do manual labor and contribute to the actual maintenance of the college.


The following was printed as center-spread article in the March 6, 1951 issue of the Youth's Instructor.

Share Your Faith in South Africa

Pieter H. Coetzee

The [1950] Helderberg College choir tour is an event that will long be remembered by the people of the Union of South Africa. This "Share Your Faith" endeavor was one of the biggest good-will promoters, prejudice breakers, and evangelistic enterprises that has been undertaken by our youth in this union. In every way it surpassed our fondest expectations. The sixty members of the choir traveled more than thirty-eight hundred miles and visited thirteen different centers. All along the way they brought cheer and hope to thousands of listeners. Never before have we received so much publicity in the press, and reached such a large number of people.

No doubt you would like to meet the director of our Helderberg choir. Despite the fact that she is from California, South African youth claim her as their own. Travel with Miss Frances Brown and her choir while Geoffrey Garrie, youth leader for the Natal-Transvaal Conference, reports on the tour through his Field:

"If you want joy - real joy, wonderful joy - Let Jesus come into your hearts!"

"The scene is Durban Station's No. 7 platform. The train from Cape Town has just pulled in, bringing to a close a tedious three-day coast-to-coast journey. Aboard are sixty youthful passengers who are noticeably different. They are the enthusiastic, radiantly happy members of the Helderberg College A Cappella Choir. While the Daily News reporter interrogates Miss Frances L. Brown, the choir leader, and Dr. W. E. McClure, Helderberg's principal, Press Cameraman Bunn takes his position on a porter's barrow to get a picture of the choristers in action. Then, as if by magic, the humdrum of activity ceases while strains of angelic music ring through the usually busy station. The porter puts down his load; the policeman stops dead in his tracks; clerks in nearby railway offices come to doors and windows to listen as the students tell them in song where they will find real, wonderful joy.

"In a report under the caption `If You Want Joy, Real Joy,' accompanied by two front-page pictures, the afternoon paper said:

Workers hurrying and jostling their way along the platforms at Durban station this morning paused at the sound of young voices singing above the din and clatter. Passengers who had just alighted from the Cape train, and those on the platform to meet them, stopped in the middle of excited greetings to see a group of young men and women, standing before a porter's barrow, lustily singing, "If you want joy, real joy." . . .

The singers, whose brief performance was given for the benefit of the Daily News cameraman, were some of the 60 members of the Helderberg College A Cappella Choir, who open a three weeks' tour of the main cities of the Union with a good-will concert tonight in the Durban City Hall.

Dr. W. E. McClure, principal of the college, who is accompanying the choir, said: "The aim of the tour is to bring, in song, a message for these times. A message that will thrill and strengthen people at a time of crisis - to impart through their voices the optimism and dauntlessness of youth.

Durban's Deputy Mayor, Mrs. A. M. G. Maytom, M.P.C., will officially welcome the choir at tonight's concert.

"The report then went on to tell about the college from which the choir had come, of its objectives and educational program. This was a truly wonderful beginning to a tour that was to reveal to us many signal manifestations of God's power and readiness to work for and with His people.

"In the course of its tour through the Natal-Transvaal Conference, the choir sang in six key cities. These included Pretoria, capital of the Union of South Africa; Johannesburg, center of the greatest gold-producing area in the world; Vereeniging, site of the largest electric power station in the Southern Hemisphere; Benoni, hub of the great eastern gold reef and where the first South African youth congress was held last year; Pietermaritzburg, the beautiful capital of the province of Natal; and, as already mentioned, Durban, South Africa's gateway to the Indian Ocean.

"With the exception of Vereertniging, the choir was publicly welcomed at each of these centers by the mayor or his deputy. In each case he stayed right through to the end of the program and was profuse in praise of the wonderful performance. The remarks made by these important personages during their addresses were truly revealing. Most prominent in our minds are the words of Councilor Beckett, at that time the deputy mayor of Johannesburg. He has since assumed office as mayor. In addressing a packed house at the opening of the Golden City concert, he said,

If there are any present tonight who have any question as to what Seventh-day Adventists stand for, let me assure them that they will have all doubts removed from their minds before they leave the hall.

"In welcoming the choir to his town Councilor A. E. Reid, mayor of Benoni, said, 'I can think of no institution that is more worthy of welcome than the Helderberg College!'"

"While in Durban and Pietermaritzburg the students and their leaders were the guests of the respective mayors, who graciously made public transportation available to them to go on sight-seeing tours of their cities.

"The tour of Pietermaritzburg opened up an unprecedented opportunity for witnessing. Arrangements were made with the town clerk to visit the King George V Memorial Homes. This wonderful scheme consists of thirty cottages for retired couples, a home for aged women, and a home for aged men. News was sent down to the dear people at the homes that the choir was coming to sing to them, and by the time our students had reached them after seeing the Garden City, over a hundred 'citizens' of the King George V 'village' had seated themselves in the assembly hall, on the lawns, and on verandas.

"Meanwhile the press had heard of the plan, and we were thrilled to discover on arrival that Mr. Eldridge, the news editor of the Natal Witness, was present in person with his photographer. Present, as well, were the president of the homes, formerly principal of one of Natal's largest schools, who thanked the choir for remembering the older citizens of the town, and Mrs. Beardmore, the secretary.

"When the students offered a little gift to the drivers of the busses as a token of their gratitude for the wonderful tour they had given them, one of the men said: 'We are loathe to accept anything. The beautiful singing to which we have just listened is more than ample payment.' At the concert that night the drivers and the inspector of public transport, Mr. Donaldson, were present with their families, and asked us to please return to their city as soon as possible. The picture of the choir at the King George V Memorial Homes, which appeared - with a write-up on the front page of the Natal Witness had the caption 'A Little Sunshine into the Evening Hours of the Aged.' . . .

"The value of the wonderful contacts that were made as a result of the tour can never be estimated. In planning our promotion our Missionary Volunteer Societies decided to undertake to send personal invitations to every minister and schoolteacher in the centers that would be visited. As a result, there were many ministers present in every one of the capacity audiences. In Pieterrnaritzburg the Baptist church canceled its choir practice and came over en masse to the recital. Already two ministers from the reef area have written to the college to express their sincere appreciation of the wonderful work that the institution is doing. In one of these letters a check for two pounds, two shillings (seven dollars) was enclosed. We feel sure that these are only the beginning of a long train of letters that will come in from every side. Certainly the singing of the choir is still the subject of conversation in many circles. It is interesting to note some of the things that impressed those who constituted large audiences and the items that cultured people who attended are talking about.

"They are amazed at the superior quality of the music produced by unprofessional singers. They are impressed that such a fine group of youth should devote their talent to the singing of Christian songs, when so generally the young people of this age are giving themselves to jazz, movies, thrillers, and the flippant, empty things of life.

"They were intrigued with the absolute strictness of the discipline of the group in following their director and with her inspired leadership. Above all, people are speaking about the cleanness of the group, the openness of their faces, the frankness of their demeanor, the orderly way in which they conducted themselves, and the superiority of their appearance.

"We make no reservations in saying that this was undoubtedly the greatest project that our MV's have ever undertaken. Even if not a single other blessing were to result from the undertaking - and many already have - the blessing it brought to our young people throughout the field in throwing their weight behind the program - in helping with the promotion, the accommodations, and the working out of the many other little details which made it possible for us to write success over the venture - would still have made the tour of the Helderberg College A Cappella Choir worth everything that was expended on it.''

Mr. Garne did not tell you that he managed to arrange a twenty-minute broadcast from the S.A.B.C. studios in Johannesburg. To us it means much, for this was the first time that Seventh-day Adventists have broadcast from the Golden City. As a result of this broadcast, the South African Broadcasting Corporation has invited the choir to give another program-this time for ninety minutes from the Cape Town studios. We trust that this broadcast will open a channel that has long been closed for Adventists in this country.

Pastor R. M. Gardner came to us from Canada with a background of rich experience. He was responsible for organizing the tour through the field where he is now the Missionary Volunteer secretary. Pastor Gardner reported:

"In the Cape Conference the tour began with appearances in two of the large theaters in Cape Town with more than eighteen hundred people in attendance. After listening to the first appearance of the choir one woman, not previously interested in a hereafter, remarked to one of our people, 'Now I think I would like to go to heaven.'

"The next outstanding success took place in Bloemfontein. In this city, a very strong Dutch Reformed Church center, it was said that if we could get two or three hundred out, we would do well. During the planning of our advertising for this city the Lord opened the way for us to interview the president of the most influential club in town. Invitation was then given to speak before the club, and when this was done the Rotarians offered to send invitations to all the leading citizens, in this way sponsoring our choir appearance in their city.

"The newspapers gave excellent write-ups, and for the first time one of the Afrikaans papers, a strong Dutch Reformed Church organ, gave full picture space and a good column write-up.

"Thc local Methodist minister made a Sunday announcement to his whole congregation and postponed their own choir practice to enable them all to attend. The mayor of the city consented to come and welcome the choir personally.

"When the night of the choir appearance arrived we were full of hope, fear, and trembling. The Lord surely rewarded us for our hope, at least. The city hall was well filled with over twelve hundred people in attendance. Our church people were thrilled beyond words to see so large a number of businessmen present. The mayor, president, and vice-president of the Rotary Club and their families were in the audience. In fact, the Rotary Club reserved the first middle section for themselves and their families alone. The Methodist minister spoken of, and his entire choir and a large number of his church members attended as a body. We were told that only one attraction in the last two years has drawn such a large crowd. Then personal comments poured into our offices, many stating that they had never heard anything like it before. One said, 'It was like heaven.'

"In East London the next appearance of the choir was in a smaller hall, but here the people were crowded in with every seat taken, and many were standing. In Port Elizabeth we experienced another thrilling success. We were happily surprised to have the city hall so full that extra seating had to he brought in and even so, many were turned away. Some were even seated on the floor in the aisles. Here the mayor, unable to attend because of other appointments, sent a personal representative to welcome the choir.

"The choir also made an appearance in one of our smaller towns, namely Uitenhage. Papers gave excellent publicity, and as usual the hall was filled to capacity. The local newspaper representative stated that the townspeople had never had anything like this in their town before. In his write-up after the choir appearance he made this statement:

Anybody in the audience here tonight who has allowed God to be outside his life will, after hearing the singing of these youngsters, think very seriously of bringing Him back again.

In Oudtshoorn, another small town, the hall was completely filled, and the mayor attended and gave a fine welcome.

"Another feature of this choir appearance was Mrs. Elsie Watt's rendition on the marimba of some familiar and beautiful pieces. The marimba, an instrument not widely known in South Africa, was received most enthusiastically by the audience. Such features as this made a great appeal to the public.

"This tour was a great undertaking, and it also necessitated a good deal of expense, but I am sure that in the years to come the results will pay many times for the efforts put forth and the expenditure entailed. The Missionary Volunteers in our conference have again proved themselves willing to undertake and do great things for God, as have all the members of the churches, for this undertaking was made possible by the combined efforts of all. Special credit should be given to Miss Frances Brown, director of the choir, who possesses the rare ability of taking the simple songs of the message that everyone loves and understands, and bringing out of them the beauty and grandeur they possess. The rendition of such songs as Nearer, My God, to Thee and Lead, Kindly Light brought the highest praise from music critics in nearly every city.

"We rejoice in the blessings of the Lord on this undertaking, and are sure that a milestone has been reached and passed in our work here in the Cape Conference."