Calvary Chapel Worship Singer Celebrates Her Sister: Donna Summer

Among the voices on the worship team at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale is a woman whose life experience has taken her performing around the world – not from church to church, but rather on US and European tours at concert venues as large as 17,000 people. Her name is Mary Gaines Bernard, and she is the younger sister of Donna Summer, affectionately remembered as the Queen of Disco. An accomplished singer and songwriter, Mary released her first solo CD recording in 2008 entitled “You Made It” that features contemporary Gospel songs, and she performed at Disney’s Night of Joy that same year. However, on New Year’s Eve, Mary is inviting fans to take a trip down memory lane with her in a loving celebration of her sister, Donna Summer, and the songs they performed together. The show, “Once Upon a Time: An Intimate Musical Journey” will be held at Old School Square Crest Theater in Delray Beach with doors opening at 9 p.m. and the performance at 10:15 culminating in a New Year’s toast.

Celebrating Donna Summer

Since the date is also Donna Summer’s birthday, Mary is also calling it a “Donna Summer Birthday Celebration.” It has been three years since Donna passed away due to lung cancer and recently Mary wrote in a letter to Donna’s fans, “I miss her very much. She was not just Donna; she was my big sister, my confidant, my road buddy and my best friend… At first it was painful to hear her music, knowing she was no longer on the planet. But early one morning I heard Donna’s voice whisper to me, ‘Mary, you don’t have to miss me. Remember me through the music.’”

Since announcing the show, Mary said she’s had many fans say, “I just want to tell you how much I loved your sister.” She explained, “When my sister passed everything was so private fans didn’t have a place to go to say goodbye … I am hoping this will be a healing opportunity to minister to them.”

And she has plenty of support from the Calvary Chapel worship team, many of whom will be playing in her band that night. Before Mary had even shared her idea, she said the bass player, Kenny, came to her and said, “You should really be singing your sister’s music. I’d be happy to do something with you … you have the essence of the music.”

“I didn’t say anything that day because I was just processing that he was excited about something that he didn’t even know God hard already put on my heart,” she said.

Mary has been a member of the worship team at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale for more than 15 years, and said, “I am blown away by the musicians all the time.” On the night of the Donna Summer celebration performance, Mary said “90% of the performers will have worked together on the platform at Calvary Chapel. That’s the synergy right there that you can’t buy. Every day I get more and more jazzed about it.”


A musical journey

Raised in a church-going family, Mary was one of seven children born to Andrew and Mary Gaines in Boston, Massachusetts, and there was always singing in the home. In fact, Donna’s musical debut was at 10 years old in her church. It was clear she was born to sing. However, as one of disco music’s greatest artists, Donna’s music was far from gospel. In 1975, her first hit single was a seductive disco track called “Love to Love You Baby,” and it was followed by hits such as “Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls” and “Last Dance.” Later hits included “She Works Hard for the Money” and “This Time I Know it’s for Real,” among many others.

So I asked Mary how she thought about the secular versus the sacred aspects of performing. For her it comes down to what she calls “marketplace ministry.”

“Giving your gift to God is not just bringing it into the church,” she said. “They don’t expect a surgeon to just operate in the church. Music is the only thing they do that with. No, the Lord told us to go.”

During her years with Donna, Mary explained their performances were never really aimed at the church. And later as they grew in their walks with the Lord, they began to rethink their performances.

“We did some songs that could be considered inspirational songs and God laid on that.”

One example was the song, “Smile.” Mary said, “She would sing ‘Smile’ and there would not be a dry eye in the house.” Mary added that “in Vegas, we had a gospel section of the show, but we didn’t feel like we had to do that to validate us.  It was simply bringing them back to where we came from; we came from the church.”


The street preacher

While her family went to church and it was common to see her Dad praying, Mary said she was saved by a Hollywood street preacher her sister Dara encountered. My sister brought me to him and he explained “you’ve got to be born again.” So I prayed. And while Donna was not originally as receptive, Dara brought the preacher to Donna’s house where he would sit and pray with her, and one day Donna came in and prayed too.

For a while the sisters attended The Church on the Way in San Fernando Valley, California, where Pastor Jack Hayford began to disciple them. She said he suggested that they should grow where they are planted. Mary explained, “The Kingdom of God is within us, so when I go into dark places I don’t become darkness… Love changes everything. …Our actions speak louder than words and it really is wearing your walk.”

While Mary admits “the average Christian won’t go where I’m going, but I have to do what God told me to do.”

She said “God gave me a vision and told me this is the anointing I put on you. It’s a family anointing on our singing voice that bypasses the intellect of the person who hears the music and He drops a seed in their spirit and they will begin to desire to know who the true and living God is. People will begin their search. This is my job in the Kingdom.”

When Donna passed away, Mary admitted it was hard. “We’ve seen God heal so many people. I can’t tell you how many fans came backstage, we’d pray for them and the next year they’re in remission.” And though they prayed for Donna, the answer was not what they had hoped for from God. “It’s one of those times when I have to acknowledge that I still love Him, but I don’t understand.”


Sing, dance and be happy

Asked what she thought Donna would say about her New Year’s Eve performance, Mary said, “I think she’d say, Go, Mary, go! Have fun. Life is short. Just sing! My family does a sing-a-long well, because that’s how God wired us.”

What should you expect if you go to this Musical Journey? Mary said, “It will be a night full of surprises – a trip down memory lane where you can sing, dance and just be happy. I’ll be telling stories about our life, Donna’s life and life on the road, stories behind the music that people may not know about. It will be a lot of fun.”

In the invitation to Donna’s fans, Mary wrote, “You can dance if you want to dance, sing if you want to sing, you can dress in a tuxedo, wear your blue jeans or your best disco dress and maybe even sport an afro wig. So unbutton that collar and put on your dancing shoes because we’ll be singing all of your favorite songs right into the New Year!”

For tickets visit or call 561-243-7922, x1

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