22 November 2016
Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,
On September 17, 1994 I was ordained to the Priesthood in Marquand Chapel at Yale Divinity School where I was working as Assistant Professor of Church Music. We were using incense, and at the Litany for Ordinations the smoke alarm went off. I was prostrate on the floor and assumed that the fire marshal would step in to announce that the service was over. Much to my relief, the Litany continued, someone finally turned off the alarm, and the service proceeded.
When we invited the Yonkers Fire Commissioner and Fire Fighters to attend Saint John’s Service of Rededication and Installation so that we could honor them for saving us from the horrendous fire a year ago, I asked Commissioner Sweeney if we would have any problem using incense for the service. He said, “How tall is the ceiling?” I said, “75 feet.” He said, “No problem!”
Of course we didn’t count on the fact that the thurifer and the acolyte team would be lighting the thurible in the sacristy with its lower ceiling and smoke alarm. The smoke alarm went off as my two children, Jonah and Nadia Sirota, were reading the Epistle. They both smiled. In the sermon, The Reverend Barbara Crafton, priest, author and one of my spiritual directors, mentioned the brave firefighters who ran towards that fire and not away. The fact that the smoke alarm had gone off felt entirely appropriate!
I never expected to end up as an Episcopal priest. I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran, a denomination that still does not allow the ordination of women. I taught at Boston University after receiving my Doctorate in Music and was working as an organist and choir director at an Episcopal church in Dedham, MA when my father-in-law was dying of a brain tumor. This Christian community embraced not only me, but my whole family, and showed us what Christ-like love could actually be. It was in dealing with death that I began to understand the gift of God’s love.
The conversion that I struggled with—the sense of the presence of a living God—also involved grappling over whether or not I was called to the ordained ministry. I said no repeatedly, but God kept hounding me. Within six months of my finally saying yes, my husband, raised a secular Jew, was baptized by the first woman bishop ever, The Right Reverend Barbara Harris, and my son Jonah and I were confirmed by her. It was awesome to be present at such an historic time!
This is such a time in Getty Square, Yonkers. I am the first woman given the authority of priest-in-charge at Saint John’s Episcopal Church, and, surprisingly, my husband, a composer, is the first clergy spouse to inhabit the rectory since 1948. We also represent the first family since that time. Our two children, Jonah and Nadia, are both professional violists who played in the service. Jonah flew from Nebraska where he lives, and Nadia, who lives in NYC, flew in from Iceland. Historic moments indeed.
I left my position at Yale to work as a Vicar in an urban mission church in Baltimore for ten years. Then I became the Canon Pastor and Vicar at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York for nine years. Feeling the call to move on and return
to a place where my passion for urban ministry with all of its struggles and challenges could be used, I talked with Bishop Dietsche and Canon Blake Rider about where they could use me. By March 1, we were talking about Yonkers.
I am grateful for the good work of the priests who have preceded me, especially Fathers John Hamilton and Burt Ulrich, and also for this wonderful congregation and the strong and faithful leadership. Somehow the Holy Spirit has been working overtime in this place, and the near destruction from a fire ended up as the catalyst for a huge restoration of this historic building.
We are poised for great new things. Did you see the faces of all of the people who were there on Saturday, November 12th? In the letter of Institution that Bishop Dietsche read, he called me to “Care alike for young and old, strong and weak, rich and poor.” What I loved most about that service was that everyone was there. It was the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. It was the Mayor of Yonkers, Council Members, Boy Scouts and Fire Fighters. It was our new young acolytes, and the veteran vergers and acolytes from the Cathedral. It was clergy and lay people from the Episcopal Diocese and Catholic brothers and priests from churches close by. It was board members from The Sharing Community and the congregation’s wardens and vestry. It was new members, neighbors, visitors, relatives and people whose parents brought them here when they were children. And we were singing together in a building saved from a fire, worked on, repainted, cleaned and refurbished by excellent companies and great souls, and rededicated to God. That’s the charge to this Saint John’s Church in Getty Square, Yonkers: gather people from all different walks and ways of life, feed them, remind them how loved they are by the God who created them, and then send them out to spread the good news. In a world in which angry rhetoric has taken over, we offer the love of God for all people, a healing salve for a weary world. It’s a new day in Yonkers!
Have a wonderful and blessed Thanksgiving--and join us on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27th as we begin a new Liturgical year!
With gratitude and love,
The Rev. Dr. Victoria R. Sirota