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More than 300 celebrate 25th anniversary of Fran Toy's ordination

Toy: 'It's been a wonderful ride and it's not over yet'

[Episcopal News Service] Hailing her pioneering spirit, more than 300 people gathered at Christ Church in Alameda, California, on June 5 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Fran Toy's ordination as the first Asian American woman priest in the Episcopal Church.

"It was humbling to see so many people there," said Toy, 75, a former public educator who was ordained to the priesthood June 8, 1985 in the San Francisco-based Diocese of California. The anniversary service drew national and international greetings and guests and "made all sorts of reunions possible" including family, church and childhood friends, former students, and even her doctors, said Toy, 75, in a June 7 telephone interview.

The celebration included "every Asian language that is used in the diocese," including Cantonese, Japanese, Korean and Tagalog, added Toy, who co-presided in Cantonese. Bishop Marc Andrus of the Diocese of California was preacher; also presiding was the Rev. Dr. Katherine Ward, a close friend of Toy.

"I could never have guessed, first of all, that God would call me to be ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, and being the first Asian American female, that it has opened so many doors," Toy said.

"It's been a really wonderful, wonderful adventure," she said. "It's been a wonderful ride and it's not over yet."

Among those extending greetings to Toy were Archbishop Paul Kwong of the Anglican Church of Hong Kong and Macau, her seminary classmate at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP), and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church

"When the Presiding Bishop was a seminarian at CDSP I was her dean of students," Toy said.

The Rev. Dr. Winston Ching, former church center Episcopal Asiamerican Ministries (EAM) missioner and currently a professor at St. John's College in Hong Kong attended the service.

The Rev. Dr. Winfred Vergara, church center missioner for EAM, said that in terms of attendance and diversity the gathering was "a fitting tribute" to Toy. She has been active in EAM since its founding in 1973 and served as president of the EAM Council from 2003 until she was forced to resign last year because of recurring liver cancer.

"I am proud of the Episcopal Church for raising up Asian leaders like Dr. Fran Toy and enabling and empowering them to help transform unjust structures in church and society," he added.


A pioneering spirit

Toy, whose ministry has encompassed local, diocesan, provincial, national and international service, described growing up with independent, pioneering women and feeling called to ordained ministry at age 17, a call predating women's ordination.

"I don't say it's my ministry, it's God's ministry through me," she said. "I think I just try to be what we're supposed to be with what we promised at our baptism."

A cradle Episcopalian, she was born August 9, 1934 and grew up at Church of Our Saviour, a Chinese congregation in Oakland, where she met her future husband, Art Toy.

But prior to marriage her mother, a third-generation Californian and educator who "was the first female to open her own private Chinese school," insisted she go to college.

"My mother said to her children not 'if' you go to Cal (the University of California at Berkeley) but when you go and here I was only 17, and there was this call from God and I didn't know what to make of it," Toy recalled.

She made some initial inquires about ordained ministry but was re-directed eventually into education. She served as a public school teacher for 19 years while raising two children.

But while attending an EAM conference near Seattle in 1977 she again felt called to the priesthood.

"By then the Episcopal Church was officially ordaining women and I was working on my master's degree in education. I was sitting alone in my room reading when I heard somebody ask me, 'Where have you been all these days? I've been waiting for you.'

"I looked around, but nobody was there," she recalled. Eventually, she began attending seminary at CDSP part-time and continued to teach part-time.

"I started seminary with two children in college," Toy recalled. "All three of us graduated within eight days of each other."

She was ordained to the diaconate on June 9, 1984 and to the priesthood on June 8, 1985. CDSP awarded her a doctor of divinity degree in 1996.
 
She has served congregations in the Diocese of California as interim rector including: True Sunshine Church, San Francisco (1984-1985); Christ Church, Alameda (1986), where the June 5 service was held; and Church of the Resurrection in Pleasant Hill (1986-1987).

In 1987, she began serving as part-time alumni/ae coordinator at CDSP. By the time she retired in 1996, she was director of alumni/ae and student affairs.

Locally, she chaired the diocesan department of education, served on the commission on ministry and was also a 1988 deputy to General Convention from the Diocese of California.

She was a clergy representative to several provincial synods and has served as a member of Executive Council (1991-1997). She served on the Church Deployment Board from 1994-2000 and was elected to the boards of both the Episcopal Women's History Project and the Episcopal Women's Caucus.

From 1999 to 2005 she served as a spirituality faculty member for CREDO Institute, a church wellness resource that strives to help take care of caretakers, including clergy families, clergy and laity.

She was appointed by Executive Council as a representative to the Seventh Assembly of the World Council of Churches meeting at Canberra, Australia in 1991.
 
After 25 years of ordained ministry, Toy said serving the church "still remains a challenge" for women priests.

"The Episcopal Church has come a little way, but especially for people of color it is still not easy," she said.

"Women are not called as readily as men and they probably still aren't paid as much," she said June 7. "The older they get the harder it is for them to be called. A lot of parishes are still looking for straight men with wives. Maybe they don't have a station wagon anymore, but they have a four-door car, a dog and a couple of children."

Toy, who was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2007 and has undergone several major surgeries, said she "appreciates and gives thanks for each precious day." In retirement she has returned to her home parish, Church of Our Saviour in Oakland, California.

She was surprised to receive a standing ovation during her celebration but delighted with one reunion in particular.

"My interventional radiologist, Dr. (Douglas) Hadley, and his wife, Jo, were there," she said. Jo Hadley wrote a message to Toy on one of the paper butterflies provided for that purpose, Toy explained. "She said that it was wonderful to discover 33 years later that her husband's patient was the kindergarten teacher she had so adored."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.

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