CLAREMONT - As the Rev. Mary Ellen Kilsby was ailing in the final months of her life, a steady flow of visitors came by each day. The people she ministered to and shepherded through the years, those with whom she shared moments great and mundane, life's highs and - just as important -- its lows, its triumphs and tragedies, all wanted to spend time with Kilsby as the days dwindled away.

"You had to book a visit," joked the Rev. Jerry Stinson, Kilsby's successor as senior minister at First Congregational Church in Long Beach. "There was such a stream of visitors, and that was the way she wanted it."

On Friday, Kilsby died in Claremont after a long illness. She was 77.

Kilsby's final moments were spent with her four children all sitting on her bed.

"We were with her when she died, rubbing, stroking and reassuring her," Kilsby's youngest daughter, Robin Kilsby, said Monday. "She was such a fighter. She didn't want to miss out on anything."

Until the very end, Stinson said Kilsby maintained a thirst for life and shared it with all who came.

"All of her friends, family, fans and supporters came," Robin Kilsby said.

"Up until the day before she died, she took notes and wrote thank-you notes to most of the people," Robin Kilsby said, estimating at least 10 visitors came the day before her mother died.

Despite the pain and the inevitable end drawing close, Kilsby greeted and embraced all who came.

Just a few weeks before Kilsby died, a faculty member at the Claremont School of Theology picked Kilsby up and took her out for a movie and had a beer.

"She had an incredibly warm personality that made people feel special," Stinson said.

For 12 years, Kilsby was the senior minister at the historic downtown First Congregational Church of Long Beach United Church of Christ.

When she came to Long Beach in 1988, she was the congregation's first female senior minister. Although the UCC had ordained women ministers since 1853, Kilsby was one of the few to lead such a large congregation, according to church literature.

"She was a pioneer," Stinson said.

Until her retirement in 1999, Kilsby was instrumental in making the church accessible, friendly and accepting to the lesbian and gay community and becoming known as an open and affirming congregation.

In retirement, Kilsby was named a senior minister emerita at the church. She lived in Long Beach until 2010, when she moved to Claremont.

Stinson, who recently retired, said it was Kilsby who suggested and supported him replacing her.

"It was a challenge," Stinson said of replacing Kilsby, "but it was a partnership."

In addition to remaining an active volunteer in the Long Beach church, Kilsby became involved in philanthropy, supporting Long Beach arts organizations and her almae matres, Pomona College and the Claremont School of Theology, among her causes. At Claremont, she helped endow the Kilsby Family/John B. Cobb, Jr. Chair in Process Studies.

Kilsby also maintained her ecumenical interests on a number of church and religious boards and organizations.

Kilsby graduated from Pomona College in 1956 with a bachelor of arts degree cum laude in sociology and religion. After being married to Bud Kilsby, her husband until his death in 2009, and beginning a family, she entered the Claremont School of Theology, where she received master's of art and doctor of ministry degrees.

In 1975, when she graduated from Claremont, Kilsby won the school's Wilshire Preaching Award. It was the first of numerous awards and accolades she would receive through the years from organizations large and small, national and local.

Prior to taking over at Long Beach, Kilsby was an associate minister at the Claremont United Church of Christ from 1983 to 1987.

Kilsby is survived by her four children: Kathy Kilsby, Richard Kilsby, Christi Norton and Robin Kilsby, and 11 grandchildren.

Two celebrations of her life will be held. The first will be at 2 p.m. Jan. 19 at First Congregational Church, 241 Cedar Ave., Long Beach. The second will be 4 p.m. Jan. 20 at Claremont United Church of Christ, 233 Harrison Ave., Claremont. 

Interment will be private.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations in Mary Ellen Kilsby's name be made to the Edwin and Dorothy Baker Foundation, 1230 Wardlow Road, Long Beach, 90807.