Called to be a priest since childhood, woman pastoring her longtime Massena church

Dec 20, 2019

Sonya Boyce blesses her husband, John. Even when she's been discouraged or tempted to give up on her dream to become a priest, she says he's been her rock and encouraged her to persist.
Credit Monica Sandreczki/North Country Public Radio

Think for a second about the communities who have loved you and encouraged you to pursue your passions -- the friends and mentors who have shaped you into the person you're becoming.

That's something Sonya Boyce has been reflecting on a lot lately. She felt a calling to become a priest as a kid.

Last month, at 67 years old, she became the pastor of the North Country church that she's attended for most of her life.

Hers is a story 60 years in the making. It's a story about a community of people who supported their friend in the task they feel she was meant to do.

"No one's a natural in a position, but she's damn close to a natural," said Mac Shoen, talking about Boyce, his longtime friend and new pastor.

"She's just a got a big heart and compassion."

Jessica Curran agrees, full-heartedly.

"I've been to other churches. I have tattoos. I have piercings. I've been judged before. When I came in (to this church), I was kind of fearful that I wouldn't be accepted, and it was just the opposite," said Curran.

Boyce has developed that reputation at St. John's Episcopal Church in Massena, St. Lawrence County.

Long road

Boyce said when she was preparing to attend seminary in Wisconsin, she looked deep into herself about whether she was going to commit to the path of becoming a priest.

"I had many discussions with God," she said with a laugh. "I'm not sure I gave him a chance to talk back until the end. You know, 'Do you know how old I am?' 'Do you know how far Wisconsin is from Massena?' 'Do you know how much it's gonna cost?'

"Finally, after I settled down, I heard in a still, quiet voice, 'Sonya, how much do you love me?' And there was no looking back."

It's been a long road. Most of that journey has happened here at St. John's.

Her calling

Boyce grew up in a Catholic family in Massena.

"I would play Communion with my stuffed animals. Except for one cousin, I told her that she could come, but I swore her to secrecy because I was Roman Catholic, and you're not supposed to do that, especially if you're a woman.

"She would say to me, 'Well, you should become a nun.' I said, 'I don't want to be a nun. I want to be a priest.' "

But then life happened. She met her husband, John, at Massena Central High School. They attended SUNY Potsdam, got married at St. John's, and she converted to being Episcopal. They had kids and she became a kindergarten teacher.

Then, about 30 years ago, something happened. One night at her house, she heard a voice, of a close friend of hers from church, call her name three times.

"So I said, 'Arpy, is that you? Is that you calling me? What do you want?' And the energy disappeared, and I went back to bed. Didn't go to sleep, mind you, because it was kind of unnerving," said Boyce.

Then, a couple of weeks later, she had a vivid dream where Arpy handed her a chalice, like ones priests use during Sunday services. She and her pastor at the time took it as a sign from God.

Sonya Boyce with her friends, Fran Lambert and Bill Solomon. At Boyce's ordination, they gave her a set of keys, a symbol of her institution as their new pastor.
Credit Monica Sandreczki/North Country Public Radio

Overcoming roadblocks

On the day of her ordination, Boyce left the sanctuary and headed down to the church basement with her longtime friend, Fran Lambert.

"We've waited for this a long time," said Lambert.

Boyce kissed her on the forehead.

She started attending seminary off and on, but ran into roadblocks. Her mom passed away; she became a caregiver for her dad. 

Plus, her church's bishop at the time wasn't on board. He sent her a letter saying she couldn't become a priest.

"He did that without even meeting with her, which I found very difficult to deal with. She was OK. I mean, she was very, very, very disappointed, but she moved on. Her husband and I never did. I still don't like the guy," said Lambert.

And they still don't know why he dismissed her. Nationwide, there's a shortage of priests – Catholic, Episcopalian. At St. John's, they've had to go years without a permanent pastor, so Boyce became an unofficial leader: welcoming newcomers, taking Communion to people who are sick, driving with them out of state to doctor's appointments.

Still, some people were resistant to women in leadership at their church:

"We've come a long way, baby," Boyce said with a laugh.

"Yes, we have!" said Lambert.

"I think we've surpassed that. They haven't told me if they don't like it!" said Boyce.

"They've all passed by now!" joked Lambert.

Eventually, a new bishop encouraged Sonya to become a pastor. While Boyce was at seminary, the congregation got permission to wait to get a new priest until she could lead them.

Boyce and Lambert hugged good-bye until the ordination.

"Finally gonna get there, huh?" whispered Lambert.

Boyce lies prostrate during her ordination service. Lying down can symbolize the death to self and the new life in the priesthood, or an overwhelming humility in the call to the priesthood.
Credit Monica Sandreczki/North Country Public Radio

'This is what I'm meant to do'

At the service, the sanctuary at St. John's was packed with pastors from across the North Country and Canada, friends from church, her kids, her husband, John.

One of Boyce's mentors, Mother Elizabeth Papazoglakis walks up to the podium to give the day's sermon. She opens a gift bag for Boyce and pulls out symbolic gifts for her upcoming ministry.

"The first item is a handkerchief," she said. "It is intended for you to rejoice with those you serve in the joys of life and to cry with them through their hardships and disappointments."

Boyce's eyes teared up. Finally, it's official. After the service, people hugged and kissed. St. John's Episcopal Church has its new spiritual leader, and Mother Sonya Boyce said she's ready for this next step in the journey.

"I know, for probably the first time in my life, this is what I am meant to do, and it's wonderful. It's wonderful."