Long-time member of St. Peter’s, Betty Currie, remembers the first time she met Donna Joy. It was in the fall of 1988 when she was first introduced as the student minister at her parish. Young and energetic, full of new ideas, she was, in Currie’s words, “a breath of fresh air.”
The Reverend Canon Donna Joy will be retiring this summer from her post as rector of St. Peter’s, Winnipeg, just over thirty years after her memorable debut. During her long and distinguished vocation, she served as curate at St. Paul’s, Fort Garry, incumbent at St. Alban’s (1993-2005) and St. Peter’s (2010-present), and led St. Bartholomew’s (twice) and St. George’s, Crescentwood through intentional interim processes.
She was the first female Archdeacon appointed in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land (2000-2006) in the area stretching from the North End of Winnipeg to Peguis First Nation. She both served on and led several diocesan and national committees, supervised numerous ministry students (including myself), wrote policy for the Diocese and the national church, and was a long-time assessor for postulants at the diocesan and provincial level. She was coordinator of ministry placements for the Diocese for several years. While these accomplishments are indeed impressive, what is even more impressive is the character of a woman who enacted all these things in the early days of women in ministry in the Anglican Church of Canada. She is more than the sum total of her achievements—she is a devoted partner, mother, grandmother, a faithful friend, an inspiring priest, and a wise and discerning theologian.
Donna was baptized and raised an Anglican. She left the church for a while as a young adult when she (in her words) became “immersed in the world of the 60s.” The church, however, did not leave her. When pregnant with her youngest child, Stephanie, she returned to church. Around the same time, she also returned to school and enrolled in religion courses at the University of Manitoba. With the encouragement of members of her home parish (St. Chad’s), she discerned her calling into the priesthood. In Donna’s own words:
When I first began taking courses in theology, Stephanie was a year and a half; Donovan was about three and a half, Colin was just over six. … portions of papers were written in skating rinks, dance studios, etc. At end of term when final papers were due and exams looming, the only way to balance course work as well as the children’s needs was to pull the inevitable all-nighters. Oh, to have that energy now!
Donna’s experience juggling motherhood, university, and priesthood clearly made a lasting impression, as children’s faith development and continuing education have played a central role throughout her ministry. She is a long-time advocate of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, and the theologies of the wonder of childhood that undergird it. Similarly, Donna remains a life-long learner and dedicated teacher. Her colleague, The Reverend Canon Norman Collier, describes her love of theology as a wonderful resource for those fortunate enough to work with her in ministry, “You can talk about books you’ve read, trends in society and in church, worship and ministry, with Donna. She is always engaged in deep thinking about theology, and particularly, how it affects the parish. She is always in tune with where the church is going and where it needs to be in the future, and I have learned a lot from her.”
Donna attributes much of her theological insight to teachers who inspired her along the way, such as the Very Reverend Ralph Baxter, Dr. Dawne McCance, and Rabbi Neal Rose. McCance in particular played a central role in Donna’s formation as she displayed the authority and wisdom of a strong female scholar and mentor. Such authority and wisdom was passed on to Donna, who, in turn, passes it on to other women with great generosity and grace. Says her daughter, Stephanie: “My mother paved the way for me to survive and thrive in a male-dominated world. Her values are steadfast and she has a strong theological base to them. She taught me never to shy away from being who you are and always to follow your heart’s calling.”
Donna is also not the sort priest to shy away from prodding the church to be what it is called to be. According to Bishop Don Phillips, Donna has “charted her own path,” one which always took a “wider view of the church,” and one which included not only its contemporary struggles, but also its ancient faith and its potential future. When reflecting on the church Donna is, characteristically, prophetic about the need always to consider the church’s future, even when tradition seems to bind it in specific ways. Donna calls us to be open to the Spirit’s enlivening grace:
While I understand that we (the church) have an obligation to minister to and with an older generation (of which I include myself), we also have a huge obligation to young adults who are seeking – searching – for something beyond an individualistic and consumer-driven culture in which we live. If we are open to discovering (within a Christological framework) what feeds the spiritual needs of that demographic, we also need to invite them into having some authority in terms of shaping the church of the future. They are not interested in maintaining the status quo. I suspect that they are interested in helping to build a church of the future, and if we are open to this, we need also to be open to the possibility (probability) that this church of the future may look (be) very different than the church we have known.
Donna admits that this is a hard sell, but she believes that sound theology, together with dynamic leadership by those “who help keep the church accountable for what they are saying about God,” will move us into a future far greater than what we have asked for or imagined.
Betty Currie says of Donna after her ten years of ministry at St. Peter’s that she has “the mind of an academic and the heart of a pastor. She is curious–she researches everything, and needs to be convinced of the theological rightness of a position.” But most of all, as Currie puts it, “she encourages others to grow.” I know something of this, as Donna was my supervisor in my field placement at St. Bartholomew over a decade ago. So many of us in the Diocese have grown as a result of Donna Joy’s wisdom and encouragement. The church has been blessed by her care and rigour and by the willingness to bend but also to remain firm in the faith. She remains, and long may she remain, “a breath of fresh air.”
Jane Barter is a priest in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land, who is currently serving St. Peter, Dynevor (Selkirk), St. Philip (Hodgson), and St. Matthew (Peguis). She is also Professor of Religion and Culture at The University of Winnipeg.