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By MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
NORTH KINGSTOWN â The Rev. Virginia Heistand, a single mom of three, sits in her sun-drenched, book-filled study in St. Paulâs Episcopal Church.
Beaming, she declares, âEverything in my world has changed in the last three months and itâs wonderful.â
In that timeframe, she has become the venerable Wickford churchâs first female full-time minister â although other women have served in interim roles â and, after a career in clergy housing, she has purchased her first home, in rural Hope Valley.
Rev. Heistand is St. Paulâs 35th rector and is the daughter and granddaughter of distinguished ecclesiastics. Her father, the Rt. Rev. Joseph Thomas Heistand, Bishop of Arizona, was a staunch supporter of womenâs ordination; her grandfather was the Rt. Rev. John Thomas Heistand, Bishop of Harrisburg which is now the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.
Living up to their legacy, she says, âis one of the hardest things in what I do. My predecessors were so faithful, so strong; they were towers of faith. The more you love God, you can and want to do a good job but I know I will never be as good as either of them.â
On the other hand, Rev. Heistand is cheered and sustained by words of wisdom from a nurturing priest after sheâd undergone a tough evaluation of seminary field work. âShe said to me âThe Lord has called you to be you, not somebody else.â It gave me a lot of hope; removed the pressure.â
A graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary, Virginia was ordained to the priesthood by her father in 1991, the year before he died.
Born in Virginia and raised in Arizona, she comes to St. Paulâs from Westover Episcopal Church in Charles City, Va. The parish is so small, she says, laughing, that her three kids were âhalf the youth group.â
Those children are 15-year-old Emily and Harrison, adopted from Bulgaria, and 13-year-old Caroline, whom she learned she was expecting almost immediately upon returning home with the twin babies.
Heistand was recruited by St. Paulâs after the church had been under the nearly two-year stewardship of an interim pastor.
âI was not actually looking,â she notes. âThey called me and asked me to be in their process. I loved them from the first [time I met them]. The congregation has a lovely, clear, strong faith [mixed with] a lot of laughter. Theyâre really nice people here; very open.â
The North Kingstown church is the fourth sheâs served.
Rev. Heistand, who has a particular devotion to Bible study, is clear about the personal belief she shares in her sermons: âEvery Gospel should be good news.â
She adds that she makes pastoral illustrations of how ancient scriptures translate to modern life but finds the majority of people already have deeply personal faith. âMost of us live in the intimate connections with God.â
Simply knowing what the Gospel says is not enough. She believes the how trumps the what âthe existence of all that information is there as a matter of fact. âItâs not up to usâ to decide whatâs relevant. Knowledge without action, essentially, is meaningless.
According to Rev. Heistand, âIf you pack the head full of stuff but not the heart, or donât give your hands and feet something to doâ with the teachings, thereâs really no point. She quotes a clergy friend who says of the church, âItâs not a party for saints; itâs a hospital for sinners.â
She adds, âIf weâre doing the work of the Lord, weâre gong to be clothing, feeding, sheltering people.â
Rev. Heistand asserts that when you come to church, âYouâre here to be transformed. Itâs not a peaceful babysitting moment; youâre about to be broken open and be made new.â
For a woman who is brilliant, centered and comfortable in her faith, she insists â remarkably â âI always thought I was a really boring parish priest. I preach the Gospel, visit the sick, point people to God, work with youth and bake a lot of cookies. Iâm a meat-and-potatoes dinosaur. But Iâm really blessed.
"To be present when a person realizes that God loves them despite everything, to see that happen is a privilege."
The secret to Rev. Heistandâs serenity couldnât be simpler. It is this: âLove God and love your people.â
Martha Smith is an award-winning journalist and author. Retired, she is an independent contractor for SRIN.