Nobody Says 'Our Father' at This Vassar Chaplain's Non-Sexist Services—They Invoke 'the Holy One'

updated 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

In 1969, when Sandra Antoinette Wilson, then 18, first expressed interest in becoming an Episcopal priest, she was scoffed at—women were banned from the priesthood back then. Someone suggested she try social work instead. But she persisted and this January, at age 31, became the first black female priest in the Episcopal Diocese of New York—and only the fourth in the nation. The next day she celebrated her first Eucharist in the chapel of her alma mater, Vassar College, where she has been acting chaplain since last August, the first woman to hold the position.

She was tutoring children in the Virgin Islands as part of a team sent by the Maryland Episcopal Diocese when she decided upon the ministry. Never outstandingly pious, she recalls "no bolt of lightning. I was the last person to walk around with hands folded, genuflecting all the time. But the resolve was there, and the sense of purpose was there, and the sense of really being picked by God was there."

Born in Baltimore to interfaith parents (her late father, an insurance executive, was Roman Catholic; her mother, a home economics teacher, was Episcopal), she attended Catholic schools, then switched to public high school, and was named Outstanding Teenager of Maryland in 1970. By the time she graduated from Vassar in 1975, the movement to ordain women was gaining strength. But she put off the seminary to gain experience in the business world; she spent a year at Chase Manhattan Bank and two years as a marketing specialist at TWA. She entered Union Theological Seminary part-time ("I was working at TIME magazine as a researcher-reporter so I could afford it") until she got a Rockefeller Fund fellowship.

Wilson's role at Vassar, she says, "is not to be an Episcopalian this year. There are three associate chaplains, and I am charged with relating to the religious and spiritual needs of the community and not to be denominational." Her chapel services are what she calls, "liturgical pretzel-making," consisting of songs and hymns from a variety of religious traditions. Her sermons have such titles as "How Can You Expect Me to Solve the Problems of the World When I'm Crumbling Inside, or Coping with the February Blahs."

Wilson, who is dating three men at the moment, describes herself as "black, feminist and radical." She is a frequent preacher at the Mother Thunder Mission, a feminist congregation in Greenwich Village that uses nonsexist language ("Holy One" for "Our Father"). "But first and foremost," she says, "I'm a black woman committed to ministering wherever I'm called to do it. I want to bridge some of the gaps within our church and our society. My ultimate goal is to be a significant drop in the bucket."

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