Church organist making music for more than 55 years

April 13, 2014
Melba McVay has played the organ for 55 years. McVay currently plays at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Scenery Hill. - Katie Roupe / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

When Bethlehem Lutheran Church holds its Easter service Sunday, Melba McVay will be in her usual spot, in front of the organ.

It’s a seat she’s held for 55 years.

McVay, 73, of Scenery Hill, has rarely missed a Sunday in the more than a half-century she has been the church organist.

“I just love music. This is fun; I’ve always enjoyed it,” said McVay as she slipped on a pair of well-worn leather shoes and settled her petite frame – she’s not quite 5 feet tall – onto her bench, preparing to play her favorite hymn, Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

McVay is a lifelong member of Bethlehem, and she remembers tagging along with her grandmother, who cleaned the church, and watching as she climbed a tall ladder, with a key attached to the end of a long stick, to turn on all of the gas lights in the church.

She grew up in a musical family (at one time, there were three pianos at her house) and learned how to play the piano when she was 7 years old.

At 18, McVay taught herself to play the organ to take over for the church’s longtime organist (the late Lydia Wonsettler, one of McVay’s former piano teachers, who had moved to the state of California). Her technical skill and passion for playing hymns, and the fact she’s so nice, have endeared her to the congregation.

“I’m not Paul Jacobs or Diane Bish,” said McVay, referring to the world-renowned organists, “but I have been inspired to play by a lot of people. I do the best I can.”

The Felgemaker organ that McVay plays was purchased with funds donated by Andrew Carnegie and installed in 1906, the year the church was built. It has twice been refurbished, and McVay performed a concert in 1991 after the second restoration.

“It’s a neat instrument. It takes a lot of oomph to play this organ because it’s a tracker action, so the keys aren’t electrified and they’re harder to press,” she explained. “It’s a workout.”

McVay plays Sunday services, weddings, funerals and special events. She has played when she was sick, and she once played after she accidentally stapled her finger and then cut it badly with a knife while trying to remove the staple.

One Sunday a year, McVay takes off to visit her daughter, Christine Keeley, and her two grandchildren, in Maine.

Keeley grew up attending Wednesday choir practices, playing with her sister, the late Joyce Guzel, while their mother ran through Sunday’s hymns with the choir. On Saturdays, they listened as she rehearsed at home.

“She’s extremely devoted to her faith, to her church and to her choir members,” said Keeley. “It was a huge part of my sister’s and my growing up.”

She recalled occasionally breaking into a “secret compartment” under McVay’s organ bench at those Wednesday rehearsals to sneak Sen Sen candy, licorice-flavored breath mints that her mother would keep on hand for the choir members.

“It was our guilty pleasure, eating those candies. Those were fond memories,” said Keeley. “My mom would not let our schedules or the things that my sister and I wanted to do interfere with her practices. Some kids would resent that, but I’m more dedicated in my faith, I’m a better leader, and I’m a better mom because of my mother.”

McVay, a graduate of Ellsworth High School, has been married to her husband, Robert “Tuffy” McVay, for 53 years. She was a stay-at-home mom and spent as much time as she could with her daughters as they were growing up, helping out with Girl Scouts and other activities.

When Joyce died in 2013 after a short illness, playing the organ helped McVay deal with her grief.

“You go out and you start going through the music and the anthems, and it helps a bit. But she’s always in my thoughts,” said McVay. “I have good days and bad days. She was my social butterfly. She was always with me doing things. She was so crafty, and she was active in our church and she played the piano very well.”

McVay also serves as the church’s choir director, and she attends adult Sunday school classes, helps produce the church newsletter, handles the hymn board, helps with the church festival and occasionally teaches Sunday school.

She buys the choir members small birthday presents and holds a Christmas party where they exchange gifts.

“I have to reward them somehow because they come every Wednesday regardless,” she said, and she never turns up the heat when she’s practicing, no matter how cold the church is, because “I don’t want to do that for just one person.”

Said the Rev. Peter D. Asplin, pastor at Bethlehem, “With her consistency, her faithfulness and her humility, Melba has just brought a great sense of joy and a sense of dedication, and she is a witness to the truth of the ‘Good News’ at Bethlehem. She’s guided the congregation in liturgy for more than 50 years now, and she shows how much God matters.”

McVay admits that she sometimes still gets nervous before she plays, but once she presses the keys, fingers flying along the keyboards and deftly pulling the stops, her feet gliding across the wooden pedals, she becomes consumed with the music.

“God’s with me, and all I think about is the music,” said McVay, “My mind is on the music. It’s rewarding. I just enjoy it very much.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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