For first female priest, faith is family business

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Loyda Morales was treated a bit differently as a kid growing up in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. But that’s just what happens when you’re the priest’s daughter in a city where religion is taken very seriously.

“Maybe I was in denial,” said Morales, as she sat in the empty sanctuary at the Episcopal Church of the Mediator on West 231 Street and Kingsbridge Avenue, where she is about to celebrate her first anniversary as its priest. And that’s quite a feat for someone who originally moved to New York to work at a bank.

Some 20 years ago, Morales found herself in Riverdale living with her brother after a job transfer led her to the city. It was then that the lifelong Episcopalian stumbled upon the Church of the Mediator in Kingsbridge and discovered how she should spend her life — something that wasn’t immediately apparent to her.

“I was not aware of the calling,” Morales said. “But others were aware of it.”

The priest at the time, Diego Delgado, was the one to recognize Morales’ talent and passion, suggesting she take formal classes in theology.

Morales attended a weekend divinity course at the General Theological Seminary in Chelsea, where she simply believed she was strengthening knowledge in her own faith. Three weeks into the course, however, she learned that wasn’t the case. Instead, the instructor announced her class was actually on track to become Episcopalian priests.

“That’s when I said, ‘Whoa I didn’t know,’” Morales said. “I was challenged.”

Morales really had no intention of becoming a priest. In fact, as far as her family was concerned, the ministry quota was full with not only her father, but many cousins who served as religious leaders.

After learning this news, Morales immediately called her father. His words of encouragement would officially start the process of Morales entering the priesthood.

“I learned from his own experiences,” she said. “Things you normally wouldn’t talk about at dinner at home.”

The Church of the Mediator sponsored Morales for priesthood, even helping her financially throughout her studies. She was ordained as a priest at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 2005.

Parting ways

It was then Morales had to part ways with the parish — church rules state priests cannot immediately work for the same church that sponsored them. Morales moved to St. Stephens Church on Staten Island — a similar congregation in terms of size to the Mediator — where she stayed for eight years. That is, until 2013 when her mother became sick.

Morales left St. Stephens and moved her Florida to care for her elderly parents.

“I did miss the church, but I knew that this was an obligation that one has,” she said.

Morales views her time in Florida as a long, healing Sabbath, as family and friends embraced her.

Three years later, however, her mother’s health returned enough to where Morales could look for a church again. Her search in Florida was fruitless, but things were looking good for a return to New York, leading her to the 75-member Church of the Mediator. 

‘A homecoming’

“It was a homecoming,” Morales said. “Coming to serve in the church that, in a way, at the beginning, served me.”

Morales is the first female priest in the church’s 150-year history. While she doesn’t consider herself special, Morales does note the challenges in climbing to a position that still sometimes results in rejection simply for being a woman.

“Who knows how many women have a calling,” she said. “But if they don’t see themselves represented at the altar, how will they know that they’re also embraced by God?”

During her studies to become a priest, Morales remembered a female priest she met while doing fieldwork who, at the time, was pregnant.

“I found that totally amazing,” she said. “It speaks of the fulfillness of God. Everybody’s accepted, regardless of the gender.”

Progressive church

The Episcopalian church is progressive in terms of accepting females in leadership roles — of the roughly 5,550 clergy members that serve the church in the United States, 31 percent are female — but Morales admits it’s different when a woman leads a parish as opposed to a male.

“It’s not that one lacks something, but it’s simply that it’s more maternal, motherly sensitive,” she said.

As she approaches the one-year mark of her leadership at the church, Morales wanted to have more accomplished. But she then remembers, according to her faith, God did not create the world in just one day.

“It’s like the role I used to have when I was working at the bank,” Morales said. “Fax these, scan these, print this – you’re in your cubicle doing everything without realizing that there is a world around you. 

“But when you come to the church, you have to pace yourself.”

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