ELY — For more than 50 years, Sharon Furler’s nimble fingers have fluttered across the keys of the organ and piano at First Presbyterian Church near Ely.
The 65-year-old Ely native grew up in the quaint countryside church located about a mile outside the city limits, surrounded by cornfields, trees and a creek. The little white church was founded in 1858, originally as the First Bohemian and Moravian Brethren Church until transitioning to Presbyterian in 1958.
The congregation of almost 220 celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008.
“A lot of members have family ties that go way back,” said Joanne Chadima, a member and fellow musician. “There’s a strong feeling, a sense of roots in our church family.”
Furler remembers sitting in church with her family, watching the organist intently as her mother leaned down to tell her that would be her someday.
At 14, she sat down at the organ’s bench for the first time. Now, even after carpal tunnel surgery on both wrists, Furler still tickles the ivories every Sunday morning, accompanying the choir and congregation in hymns.
“Over the years, I’ve worked for several congregations and this congregation has the greatest sense of value of music,” said Pastor Julie Schuett, who came to First Presbyterian seven years ago. “Music is a gift of God, something to share with one another.”
“We’ve always been a musical church,” Furler said. But over the years, she added, “the music has changed somewhat.”
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With growing interest in contemporary music like praise bands, “young people seem to want to be more entertained,” she said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, (but) it’s also important to keep the tradition alive.”
She admits the changes in how people worship is having an impact on folks like her.
“Organists are a dying breed,” she said.
At First Presbyterian, they try to balance traditional music with modern tastes and Schuett said Furler transitions between the two effortlessly.
“She’s led generations of people in worship and passed through many decades, going from formal worship to flexible contemporary with grace and dignity,” she said.
Chadima takes it a step further.
“There’s something very sacred about what she does,” she said.
Although “not many people want to play organ in church” anymore, Chadima said, Furler makes a point to work with the youth of the congregation, encouraging them to participate and share their own musical talents.
Schuett echoes that saying, “She takes great care of young musicians — those who are scared to share in worship, she opens opportunities to them.” After more than 50 years playing at the church, Furler is “well loved by the congregation,” she added. “She’s an institution.”
“Sharon is competent, caring and wants to do a good job, always,” Chadima said. “She’s very good at what she does, puts a lot of thought into what she plays and practices every week. She takes it very seriously.”
“This is truly her calling,” Schuett agreed. “Her musicianship comes from a place of inspiration. You can hear her spirit and faith in her music.”
That’s because music is “her way of worshipping,” Chadima said.
Furler shares her thoughts on the matter with humility.
“I’m just sharing my God given talent,” she said. “It’s mostly for Him that I play.”