COLUMBIA — At 6:30 on a recent Wednesday evening, Mary Hull-Lovett quietly prepares for the weekly choir practice, turning on lights, checking microphones and opening the whitewashed side door for members.
By 6:45, 10 members of the choir are waiting attentively in their seats for Hull-Lovett to lightly lift her arms as a signal to start singing.
Throughout the two-hour practice, Hull-Lovett is attentive to the needs of her choir, encouraging shy singers to sing louder, or cracking a joke when one member forgets the words to her solo.
"Be ye always ready," she says, laughing.
Alma Tapp recalls when she first began singing, "I was so shy, but she brings out the best in me. I love my pastor."
Mary Hull-Lovett, 57, became the first female pastor of the 145-year-old St. Paul A.M.E. Church on Park Avenue seven years ago. The church was founded in 1867 by Rev. E.E. Dean shortly after the Civil War, and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in 1787 in response to the discrimination African-Americans faced worshiping in Methodist churches.
At St. Paul, Hull-Lovett's 14-hour days begin at 7 a.m. with Bible study, meditation, prayer, administrative phone calls and email checks. After that, she calls members who may be going through a difficult time, takes communion to the sick and shut-in, works on her sermon for the week and prepares songs for Wednesday night choir rehearsal.
On most days, Hull-Lovett leaves the church by 4:30 p.m., unless she has evening meetings to attend. Once home, she begins "the work of taking care of the household," making dinner and caring for her husband, Jeff. Their two children are grown and raising their own families.
"People demand a lot out of you," she said. "What keeps me motivated is the call on my life. You have to have a love for the people, a love for God and a love for the work."
One winter, her husband had to dig her car out of 3 feet of snow just so she could visit a church member in the hospital.
"But the card I got from their family made it worth it," Hull-Lovett said. "They called me 'family.' You know you've really affected someone when they call you family."
Family is what Hull-Lovett has focused on since she began her pastoral career in December 1999. She left careers in the medical field, entrepreneurship and counseling after 44 years of feeling that she was meant to work at a greater level within the church.
"Throughout my life I've served as a Sunday school teacher, choir director, missionary, church steward and lay officer," she said. "But, I never felt that was all."
Hull-Lovett grew up a Baptist when women did not become pastors. So, it was no surprise that her family was apprehensive when she was asked to lead the congregation of Bethel A.M.E. in Paynesville.
"I'm a part of four generations of preachers, but I'm the first female," she said. "It took some time, but it was accepted because (my family) knew me, my love of ministry and my relationship with God."
Hull-Lovett led Bethel A.M.E. for three years, making a 140-mile round trip every other Sunday from St. Louis.
"The first Sunday was pretty energizing," she said with a smile. "I met with them the Wednesday before my first service. I let them know that I would love them like a big church."
When Hull-Lovett wasn't at Bethel A.M.E., she did ministerial work at Christ Our Redeemer Church in St. Louis. It was there that she met the Rev. C. Jessel Strong, the man who would lead her to St. Paul.
Strong, who serves as the presiding elder for St. Louis and Columbia, remembers being impressed with Hull-Lovett's work. "She did everything a pastor would do," Strong said, "leading Bible study, preaching duties and visiting the sick."
In the A.M.E. denomination, when a church needs a pastor, presiding elders recommend potential candidates to their district bishop. When an opening came at St. Paul in 2005, Strong knew Hull-Lovett was the woman for the job. "I didn't consider anyone else," he said. "She was the standout person."
That was in October, and by November of that year, Hull-Lovett was standing at the pulpit, delivering her first sermon at St. Paul.
"They (the congregation) wasn't expecting a female pastor," she said with a laugh. "For some, maybe 10 percent, it was a grave concern, not because of me, but just a resistance to change."
It took almost a year for the 70 members to fully accept her. "The congregation, overall, was surprised that nothing was lacking in changing from a male to female pastor," Hull-Lovett said.
In the past seven years, Hull-Lovett has established a youth department, started new ministries for the men and women in the church, and she works to continue St. Paul A.M.E.'s legacy as a pillar of the community.
"Just to listen to the stories from our community and members about what St. Paul has done for them is amazing," she said. "I want to continue to be an open door for our community."
Bonnita Ellis, a 40-year member of St. Paul, recalls a basement service after a church roof replacement. "I've been to the national conference and heard other pastors in my time here," Ellis said. "But that day in the basement, God's anointing was so fresh upon her. It was awesome."
For Hull-Lovett, the work she has done at St. Paul is only the beginning of greater plans for the church. She dreams of opening a food pantry and an adult day care for elderly church and community members.
"I've been here now for seven years," Hull-Lovett said with her trademark smile. "I'd love to be here another seven. There's so much that needs to be done."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.