Organist serves 51 years at Bula church

Sep. 25—ASHTABULA — Fifty-one years ago, Mary Runyan came to Ashtabula First United Methodist Church as a substitute organist and never left.

Runyan was honored Sunday for her commitment to the church and its musical ministry as former members, pastors and family members gathered to celebrate her love for music and her church.

"I really just came to substitute," Runyan said. She said the church was so nice to her she decided to stay.

Runyan already had a lot of experience with music before she arrived. "I started playing the piano when I was 5," she said

Runyan also started playing the organ at 15 and got a job at Zion Lutheran Church as a 14-year old.

She also worked for a church in Conneaut before going to nursing school and moving around to different places after she got married. Runyan said she would always find a church to play until coming home to Ashtabula in 1972.

Runyan led the bell choir for many years and stepped into the choir director role as well.

On Sunday she got a break from directing the choir with her brother Jeff Shellhammer returning to lead the choir and several other family members providing musical accompaniment.

"I have a wonderful family, but I have a much bigger family," she said of the church.

Emily Knapp, a member of the bell choir since she was in eighth grade, gave her former director a big hug. "I love all the people I played with and they helped me," Knapp said.

Rev. Preston Watkins, pastor of the church, said it has been a great experience working with Runyan for the last five years. "It is the greatest blessing," he said.

Watkins said he sits down with Runyan to work out the musical part of the service each week. He said he has served at numerous churches and finding quality volunteer musicians is a challenge.

He said it is amazing to see Runyan put all of her heart into her craft as a gift to God, and it almost makes him speechless.

The church leaders worked together to keep the event a secret for as long as possible. Watkins said there was even a little fun deception to keep the event quiet.

"She got a little fake bulletin," Watkins said. He said United Methodist ministers often don't stay long in a particular church but lay leaders, like Runyan, do.

"Mary is an institution here. I'll be gone but she will still be here," he said.