As St Peters Welcomes Father Stephen Mazingo, Holy Trinity Prepares To Say Goodbye to Father Michael Bowhay

Priest Crop
Rev. Stephen Mazingo, the new rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Fernandina Beach

By Anne H Omen

Reporter At Large

Thirty-one year old Rev. Stephen Mazingo, the new rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, arrived in Fernandina in January and “hit the ground running.  My first day of service was Ash Wednedsay.”

Interviewed in his sunny office on the St. Peter’s campus, Father Stephen, as he is known to his approximately 275 parishioners, said he was “still learning about different parts of the church – the health ministry, end of life planning” and that he has a special interest in “supporting and encouraging young people to look at new and exciting ways to serve God – I see a lot of energy around youth.”

Rev. Mazingo grew up in eastern North Carolina, and studied for the priesthood at Virginia Theological Seminary, where a January term in the Dominican Republic got him interested in missionary work.  After graduation, he was sent as a missionary to South Africa, where he was ordained in 2007.

Father Stephen describes his time in South Africa as “a powerful spiritual experience.” He worked mainly in the townships.

“Under apartheid, Blacks had to live there, and many still do, some because of poverty or because they were home.  I saw a lot of poverty, but also a lot of joy.  People would care for each other when times were tough.”

He also worked with a group that provided home health care to people with HIV-AIDS or tuberculosis.

“I did many funerals,” he said.

Asked about the two issues that have rocked the Episcopal Church in recent years – woman priests and gay marriage –Father Stephen pointed out that St. Peter’s has a woman priest, Deacon Carolyn Murdoch.  On the gay issue, he pointed to a pronouncement by Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida, who has said he will not grant permission for priests in the diocese to bless same sex unions.

(Although it is called the Diocese of Florida, that diocese has jurisdiction only over the 70-plus Episcopal churches in North Florida.  The national Episcopal Church has a policy of blessing same sex unions, and some other dioceses in Florida, including the Diocese of Southeast Florida, do bless such unions)

But, Father Stephen stresses, “every person is welcome to come and worship – that’s the motto of the Episcopal Church: All are welcome.”

Father Stephen and his wife, Abigail, the sister of another Episcopal priest who introduced them, are living in a rental house while they try to sell their home in Wilmington, North Carolina. Mrs. Manzingo is starting work as a registered nurse at Nassau Baptist Hospital and also volunteers with the Barnabas health group.  In whatever spare time they can muster, they enjoy exploring Fernandina while walking their dog, a mixed breed rescue named Arnold. And Father Stephen is a surfer, (“not a very good one”) , who sometimes takes his board to Main Beach.

“Surfing is good time with God,” he said.

Alhough Father Stephen arrived only recently, the process to select and hire him began more than a year and a half ago.

“It was a long process,” said Carolyn Phansteil, a long-time parishioner and a member of the search committee.  “We looked at ourselves as a parish and sent questionnaires to parishioners to get a sense of who we are and what the congregation wanted.”

When asked how he would characterize the parish, Neil Blalock, a fifty-year Fernandina resident who chaired the search committee said: “We are diverse – we have to be.   We’re the only Episcopal Church on the island.  The nearest one is at Fort George. In some areas of the country, if people don’t like one Episcopal church, they can go to the one down the street.  People don’t have that option here.  There’s no Black Episcopal church, there’s no Mexican Episcopal church.  People move here from all over the country.  We have to be flexible to the needs of the people.  We’re traditional, but open to change.  And “change” is a word that people don’t like.”

On the gay issue, Mr. Blalock said that it did not come up in the selection process.

“We kept politics out of it.  Age, sex, and race were not questions we asked.  Instead, we said, ‘Tell us about you’ve done.’”

Forty-six candidates were interviewed, and Father Stephen was selected.

“The cream rose to the top,” said Carolyn Phansteil.

Priest 5 Crop
Retiring Reverend J. Michael Bowhay of Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Amelia Park

As Father Stephen is settling in at St. Peters, 74-year old Reverend J. Michael Bowhay (pronounced bo-ee) is getting ready to leave Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Amelia Park, to retire to his native California with his wife, Alice, a former teacher, and their dog, Cooper.  Father Michael, as he is called by his approximately 115 parishioners, came to the church in November 2007, when services were held in the chapel of the Oxley-Heard funeral home.

“There were only about 15 people, but they were solid,” he said.  “One couple, Tom King and his late wife Barbara, agreed to build a church.  They are the real heroes.”

The church, a soaring white wooden structure with a red door, was completed in 2008, and a parish hall, with offices, Sunday school classrooms and a large room for the Friday evening social hours (“We’re the friendliest church in Fernandina,” said Father Michael) was built the next year.  He and his wife were the first couple to be married in the newly built church.

Although some have characterized Holy Trinity as a “breakaway church”, in reaction to the naming of a gay Episcopal bishop in 2003, Father Michael disagrees.

“I take issue with that,” he said. “We call ourselves the continuing church—we continue the traditional values.  We didn’t change – we stayed… Many of us here were Episcopalians.  I was an Episcopalian.  My son is an Episcopalian priest.  Holy Trinity is sort of like the Episcopal church of fifty years ago.”

Many members of the church were never Episcopalians, but Baptists, Methodists and members of other denominations.  The Senior Warden, Alex Constant, is a former Lutheran.  But some parishioners did leave St. Peters due to doctrinal differences.  Howard Bunch was one of them.

“I was born and raised in St. Peter’s, but once they changed their beliefs, I left,” he said.  “I still have a lot of good friends at St. Peters, and we talk about it, kid about it.  I have no trouble with gays.  I have good friends who are lesbians, but a gay bishop, gay marriage….I’ve read the Bible through and through, and I can’t find where it says about that.”

Father Michael stresses that gays are welcome at Holy Trinity.

“I have a gay brother-in-law and a gay nephew,” he said.  “I’m not a homophobe, but I don’t hold with gay marriage.  It says early on in Genesis that God made male and female.  We also don’t ordain women, and that’s a problem for some people.  But I’m not anti-women.  We preach from the Bible and say the Nicene Creed, and we use the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer, not the 1979 version.”

Some traditionalists believe that the 1979 version is too liberal-leaning, and churches like Holy Trinity, which belong to the Anglican Church in North America, prefer the older version.  Unlike Episcopal Churches, the Anglican Church is not affiliated with the Archbishop of Canterbury, but is allied with Anglican churches in Nigeria, Uganda, Sudan and other countries.

Father Michael said his job is “to personalize God, to help people understand God and his message and the message of his Son.  I try to be a good shepherd.”  He came to this calling after a long secular career that included nine years in the Navy and thirty years in financial management.

“When I was about fifty, I started losing my hearing.  I sort of wondered whether God had been calling me and since I didn’t answer, He took my hearing away,” he said with a wry smile.  He went to an Anglican theological college in California and was ordained in December 1999.  He ministered to a church in the Napa Valley for three years, and was about to retire when he was called to a new Anglican church in Tennessee.  He came from there to Holy Trinity.

“I promised to stay here a year, but I’ve stayed five and a half, and they were the best five years of my life,” he said, proudly showing a visitor around the church, with its pews salvaged from a Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Detroit.

So why is he leaving?

“I announced my intention in the church on March 3,” he said.  “It was difficult, emotional for me.  But I’ve been away from my family for so long—I want time to enjoy them.  I’m also recovering from back surgery, and in the last year I’ve felt I just don’t have the energy. It’s time to step down and find someone with the energy to go out to the highways and hedges.”

A “call committee” is working to find a new rector and hopes to have him in place in May, when Father Michael plans to leave.  Despite the pull of grandchildren, however, the Bowhays do not rule out a return to Fernandina.

“Last night we had dinner upstairs at the Salty Pelican, and looking out on the blue water and the sunset we thought about how much we love this little island and its people,” he said.  “Maybe we’ll come back and retire here.”

April 11, 2013 2:24 p.m.