Helen DeVos’ faith legacy celebrated at memorial service

Helen DeVos, Calvin alumna and generous supporter of Calvin College and the Grand Rapids community, died at age 90 on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, from health complications following a stroke. Her funeral took place at LaGrave Avenue CRC on Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, and featured a choir of Calvin College alumni and students, directed by Dr. Pearl Shangkuan.

DeVos graduated from Calvin in 1947 with a degree in elementary education. She and her husband, Rich DeVos, have contributed to Calvin by funding scholarships, faculty research, centers/institutes and building projects such as the Spoelhof Fieldhouse Complex and the DeVos Communications Center. DeVos has also supported the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Grand Rapids Symphony and various Christian schools in Grand Rapids and across the United States.

DeVos’ funeral centered on the legacy of her Christian faith. “Her fingerprints were all over [the service],”  as Shangkuan put it, “and it was just such a joyful celebration of her Christian faith and her great love for good music.”

Before her passing, DeVos had left clear instructions for the hymns and texts she wanted included at her funeral. The scripture she chose for the sermon—Philippians 4:4-7—emphasized DeVos’ joyful spirit. Reverend Dr. Stanley Mast preached on the different ways God’s children can experience His joy and draw upon it for strength.

DeVos specifically requested that the service feature a Calvin choir. Dr. Shangkuan, who knows the DeVos family through her work with the Grand Rapids Symphony Chorus, put together a 32 person choir comprised of the Calvin alumni choir, other Calvin alumni and two Calvin students.

Junior Luke Enders and senior Ben Mohr represented current Calvin students. The choir, which had one rehearsal the day of the service, sang Johannes Brahm’s “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” and Peter C. Lutkin’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

“One of the pieces we sang, the Lutkin Benediction, is a very well-known selection that most choral people have sung at some point in their lives,” said Enders. “Something about having tons of different people with their own experience of the piece coming together to assemble it in this context was really powerful.”

Due to the private, high-security nature of the service, choir members had to undergo background checks and bring credentials to attend. Enders described how choir members could only bring items that fit in their folders. Similarly, Shangkuan said she had to conduct from memory because security did not want a music stand onstage.

Despite the high levels of security, Mohr said he was “surprised and impressed” by how little security or the media interfered with the service. The focus of the service, Mohr re-emphasized, was a celebration of DeVos’s faith.

“Of course, there’s always deep sadness,” said Shangkuan, “But the joy and the strength and the faith that shone through in the midst of that sadness is quite something to witness and to be a part of. And it think it was a great honor for Calvin college to be asked to participate.”