The Rev. Paula J. Toland was barely 12 years old when she felt her first calling toward the priesthood, but it would be nearly 40 years before everything would fall into alignment.
Having been installed recently as the priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Oxford, those dreams she had as a child have finally become reality.
That alignment necessitated the harmonious coming-together of a number of moving parts in her life, not least of which included the culture of divinity that allows for having a woman in her position.
“I have always felt the call, well before women were allowed to be ordained in the church, and I was angry that the church didn’t want me,” she said of her awakening as an adolescent that becoming a priest would be more of an uphill climb than she was prepared to undertake at that point in her life.
Her answer to that injustice was to do the closest thing that she could imagine. Born and raised in Worcester, she graduated high school and went on to earn her undergraduate degree in human services and social work, working with victims of domestic, sexual and family violence.
Another moving part — quite literally — was her family. Her husband, Ron, was in the Navy and as their family grew to include three children and moved around the country, there wasn’t much time left over for Rev. Toland to work on her own goals.
But there came a point, she said, where it “became very obvious that at the very least, I needed to be having this conversation with the right people.”
The conversation involved how she could move from a career of vocational service to a position of spiritual service. She earned her M.Div. from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge in 2013 and was ordained deacon and priest in the Diocese of Massachusetts by the Rev. Thomas Shaw in 2014.
A final variable was finding a church that would be a great fit, and Grace Church offered an intriguing opportunity to come home to the Worcester area and to the many ways it has changed and grown in her absence.
The journey, though long, has been exactly as it needed to unfold, she said.
“I am a far better priest having been ordained in middle age than I would have been in my 20s,” she laughed.
Part of what drew her to Grace Church is its strong liturgical connections and traditions. From incense and bells to the chanting and reverence, the services, she said, are moving and powerful.
Having grown up the child of an Episcopalian father and Roman Catholic mother, she said the deep spiritual connections she has experienced at the church feel both familiar and comforting.
And for a spiritual community so dedicated to some relatively ancient practices within its services, she enjoys the open mindedness of what she considers a very welcoming and inclusive community.
“Our underlying message is of the gospel and embracing a relationship with God and community,” she said. “And while not everybody agrees on everything, we do agree to meet on Sundays and worship together in a particular way, and take what we have learned into the world when we leave.”