Wednesday, July 24, 2024
July 24, 2024

United Church music director retires

BY HELEN HINCHLIFF

DRIFTWOOD CONTRIBUTOR

One summer day in July 1994, Shirley Bunyan walked into Salt Spring’s United Church. Lorne Bunyan, her RCMP officer husband, had recently been transferred from Vernon, and as they and their young family got settled here, Shirley, a lifelong church musician, went church shopping.

The local RCMP detachment knew of the Bunyans’ imminent arrival, and Const. Dave Simmons, himself a United Church member, mentioned the fact to Frances Eide. As fate would have it, Marilynne Cunningham, currently the longest-serving member of the congregation and of the choir, happened to be a greeter the day Shirley Bunyan arrived. As Cunningham reached out to shake Bunyan’s hand, she noticed a coil-bound United Church hymn book under her other arm, a clear signal that at minimum the newcomer could play a piano or organ. As Cunningham continued to welcome people, Bunyan found herself sitting in a pew next to Arlene Dashwood, who also noticed Bunyan’s hymn book. The following Sunday, Bunyan found herself on the organ bench, where she has been ever since. And to her great delight, Cunningham, Eide and Dashwood still sing in the choir.

Bunyan has been a church organist, pianist and choir director for over 50 years, serving in many churches and denominations in three provinces. But her longest stint by far has been here on Salt Spring Island at the United Church. Over the past 30 years, she estimates that some 60 singers have participated in our choir. One year we had 29 singers; currently, the choir averages around 15 members, who sing every Sunday from September through June or July, the only consistently serving church choir remaining on Salt Spring.

According to Bunyan, we are also the island’s hardest-working choir.

“We sing about 40 weeks per year, at least two pieces every Sunday service, averaging 80 pieces a year, with some repeats, of course,” she said. “But that means we’ve probably sung around 2,000 different songs in those 30 years.” It also means Bunyan has learned to play them and has taught us how to sing them. But we accept the challenge and, as Bunyan has been frequently heard to say, ‘Who has more fun than us?!’”

When asked for highlights of her United Church musical career, Bunyan mentions participating every year in Schmeckfest, when Salt Spring’s many choirs gather together to perform for each other, as well as for several events sponsored by ArtSpring featuring many of the same choirs. In 2004, Bunyan was deeply honoured when the late Hetty Clews, a University of Victoria professor of English and Salt Spring United Church choir member, penned “Music Makers,” (Clews’ son-in-law Sheldon Corbett composed the music) and dedicated it to Bunyan on her 10th anniversary at Salt Spring United.

Bunyan remembers 2006 as an extra-special year. Not only did we host the Christ the King Church Choir from Kampala, Uganda on July 12 that year, but we also sang the world choral premiere of This Could be the Day, along with its composer, Salt Spring’s own Alan Moberg.

“Alan allowed us to buy the music even before he and Larry Nickel published the choral version that Nickel arranged,” Bunyan remembered.

Speaking of world premieres, last year we sang Holy Ground, an anthem penned by our own Clark Saunders to music composed by Craig Cassils.

Over the years, Bunyan has been exceptionally generous with her musical time and talent, having taken on The Lost Chords seniors choir not long after she got herself settled at the United Church. She has accompanied or sung with or conducted every major Salt Spring choir, played weddings and funerals at every church, accompanied school choirs for the whole 30 years and played for many community events. She also served on the B.C. Choral Federation board for 10 years and is the proud holder of the Joyce O. McGuire provincial award for excellence in choral accompaniment.

Bunyan’s strong connections throughout Salt Spring’s music community give her the opportunity to call on musicians to accompany the choir when our anthems call for special instrumentation. We are grateful to all of them, including, for example, oboist Sheila Spence, trumpeter Michelle Footz, saxophonist John Moore, Celtic harpist Oona McOuat, cellist Paula Kiffner, dulcimer player Christy Cook, and the trumpet/trombone/horn trio of brothers Brad, Geoff and Rob Cronin.

Our exceptionally talented and beloved music director Shirley Bunyan retires on Sunday, July 7 and is looking forward to the next chapter of life that hopefully will provide time to see a little more of the world, hug grandchildren, finish a few quilts and grow a few flowers. But it will also leave her a little time to continue gently with a few musical endeavours; we hope to see her as a member of the United Church choir in the not too distant future.

The writer has been a United Church choir member for 23 years.

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