HOLYOKE – Ask Diane Lessard, a life-long member of St. Paul’sEpiscopal Church, what has made the Rev. Barbara J. Thrall a good rector at the Appleton Street parish for the last 10 years, and the quick response is “everything.”
“She is welcoming and caring and kind and very, very strong in her faith,” the retired Chicopee resident said.
“I can’t say enough good about her. She is a great minister and she is fabulous person.”
Thrall, who turned 66 in May, is retiring this month after more than three decades in ministry. She will be honored by the parish Friday evening, June 23, and will preach her last sermon at the 10 a.m. service Sunday, June 25. Husband Ed Farrell will be honored for all his volunteer support at a parish breakfast Sunday, June 18, after the 8 a.m. service.
“She has been so good for Holyoke. She has brought new individuals into the church, and because of her kindness she has kept people here with us,” said Lessard of Thrall’s impact on St. Paul’s, a racially and ethnically diverse congregation of some 250 active members.
“She is very pastoral as far as getting out to parishioners, getting out in the neighborhood, and making St. Paul’s known. She has the sign out that says we accept everyone as neighbors, and signs that say Hate-Free Zone that she had made up. She has been an asset to our area.”
Thrall confirms she takes a mainly pastoral approach to being rector, but says she sometimes fills what she calls the parish’s call to be more of “a prophet” and community leader.
“The signs I do are an effort to say what you are hearing in the culture is not happening at St. Paul’s. We are a loving, accepting place,” said Thrall who expresses herself in an informed, but low-key manner.
“You probably have seen the T-shirts around St. Patrick’s Day with the (Holyoke) zip code 01040 and with a shamrock in one of those zero’s. I made a sign with the zip code and one of the zero’s had a shamrock, one of the zero’s had the Puerto Rican flag and one had the American flag in it.”
The Right Rev. Douglas Fisher, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, also noted both Thrall’s community engagement work, and pastoral presence.
“Barbara Thrall is a gifted priest and among her many gifts is her ability to be a non-anxious presence. She has lead a multidimensional church in a challenging time for churches of all denominations throughout New England. And yet her faith never wavered, and her commitment to Jesus’ mission or mercy, compassion and hope was, and is, an inspiration,” said Fisher, praising her stand against violence as well as her work in initiating a ministry to veterans.
“The people of St. Paul’s will move forward focused on mission, committed to inclusion and to justice. Barbara has left her spiritual mark on this community of faith.”
Lessard adds that Thrall “always has a message in her sermons that definitely gets delivered – you don’t go away scratching your head thinking what was she trying to get across to us.”
“She is such a strong believer. Everything that she touches, preaches on, just talks about in random conversations is so positive. You get the sense that she is just reflecting all goodness and kindness that God’s got to share with us.”
Lessard likes the group Thrall started for retirees so much that she not only did she joined, but she now runs it.
“She found out every retiree in the congregation and sent them – some 60 people – a welcoming note saying we are having this event, please come and meet fellow retirees from the church,” said Lessard, who retired, in 2014, after 35 years as a federal employee at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.
“We have kept that going and call it RALI – Retired And Loving It. We meeting monthly. We do a service meeting one month, then a fun one and then an educational one.”
Thrall readily admits to being a people person, having a personality on the positive side and using prayer throughout the day to stay positive.
“I pray every day and often a large part of the day,” Thrall said.
“There is a formal set of prayers I say in the morning, but then throughout the day a little something or thought about this or that. It keeps me centered and focused on what I am supposed to be doing and why.”
Thrall, who grew up in the Chicago area, one, said she enjoyed going to Episcopal services with her parents as a girl.
“My parents took me to church and I just liked it. I got a lot out of it. I found it meaningful. I was touched by the worship and the kind people. I was aware there was some greater force in the universe and I wanted to know more about that and get closer to it.” Thrall said.
Thrall majored in theology as an undergraduate at Loyola University, in Chicago, where she also got a master’s degree in religious education. She went on to graduate from the General Theological Seminary in New York City, which prepares students for both lay and ordained positions in the Episcopal Church.
“I graduated at 35 in the early ’80’s,” said Thrall, when asked if she was among the first women to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. The Church’s 1976 General Convention approved women’s ordination, beginning in January 1977.