Retired priest reopens St. Francis Church

After hearing the call unexpectedly at a church service in Port Townsend, Wash., Father Tom Wilson, 79, came out of retirement last month to reopen St. Francis Episcopal Church.

The church, with a flagging congregation, had been closed for about four months.

After 30 years in the priesthood, he took a 10-year detour through Judaism, although he never left the church.

It took him about three years to get his holy orders back, he said. “When I got my holy orders back, I wanted to serve the church.”

He wanted to find a small church that couldn’t afford a priest, he said. He looked all over the place and found St. Francis, which is paying his rent and utilities.

After spending 10 years in Judaism, he began attending St. Paul’s church in Port Townsend. There, the priest there preached a sermon about Jesus’ words, “This is My body, and this is My blood.”

That struck Wilson, he said. The use of the term “blood” was meant to shock Jesus’ fellow Jews. Blood was not to be ingested. As in many of His parables, Jesus was trying “to jar people into looking at things differently.”

What He was saying in that phrase was, “Take My life and put it in you.”

“I was just overwhelmed,” Wilson said. “I felt a really strong calling.”

He didn’t feel it that day, but it was a call that he heard as he began talking it over with church leaders, he said. “So now, I’m a Jew for Jesus.”

He has been in Sweet Home with his wife of 57 years, Gail, for four weeks, he said. “I like it here. First of all, I was impressed by the wholesomeness of the people. There are a lot of neat people, hardworking guys and gals and a lot of obvious struggling. I like the topography, the trees. Oregon is one of our favorite states, and we’re happy to be here.”

Wilson comes to Sweet Home after spending most of 50 years in the west, he said. He was born and raised in Michigan. While in high school, he expected he would be a farmer, but he began working for a farmers association doing dairy testing on 33 farms to find ways to improve herds. He would visit the farms, staying over night and testing butterfat content, which was used to determine which bulls were best to keep in the herd.

His father had taught him electronics, and he was able to get into an electronics school. With his expertise in electronics, he spent four years in the Navy, including service during the Korean War. He served as a fire control technician aboard a destroyer guarding convoys bound for Korea. Later, the destroyer was used for off-shore bombardments.

“I was raised in the church,” he said. “I was an acolyte as a child.”

Acolytes serve the priest at the altar, giving them what they need during the eucharist and service.

“The hard part about being an acolyte, you had to kneel forever,” he said.

He also was part of a choir in Michigan that included 100 men and boys.

“I’m what you call a cradle Episcopalian,” he said. “I just love the church. The people that had the most influence on me were Christians. I love the church, and I love Jesus. I came home from the Navy pretty well determined I would become a priest in the church.”

He earned his bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and his master’s in theology at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., in 1960. He was ordained to the Deaconate and became a deacon at Cove. After a summer there, he went to Fallon, Nev., where he served at the Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and was responsible for the Eucharist for three congregations on a 300-mile circuit.

He was a full-time priest for 10 years, and then he returned to school. He earned his master’s degree in teaching at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. Afterward, he moved all over the place serving as a “non-stipended priest” while working as a teacher and doing other jobs.

He lived in California, Michigan, Iowa and Alaska. In Alaska, he stayed for 10 years at Bethel, about 450 miles from the nearest road. He was hired as a nutritionist and treatment director alcoholism and drug addiction. He and his wife also had a bed and breakfast.

After 30 years as a priest, his interest in Jesus led him to become a Jew, not a cultural Jew but a Jew by choice.

“I’d been busy studying, chasing after the historical Jesus,” he said. Like other biblical scholars, he was fascinated by Jesus and was constantly searching for who He was.

“I wanted to belong to Jesus’ tribe,” he said. “I really believe it’s easier to act your mind into a new way of thinking than thinking your way into a new way of acting.”

He wanted to jump in and see Jesus through Jewish eyes, he said. He spent two years learning Jewish Hebrew, and he “had an orthodox conversion, which really left its mark on me.”

Jesus was a Jew, Wilson said, and He came to help his Jewish brothers and sisters live up to the covenant and to be a light.

Like many religions, the Jews had fallen into a pattern of the priesthood “telling you what to do,” marginalizing many people. Jesus came to change that, “to bring them to being real Jews and living up to their covenant with God.”

“I was accepted, but I wasn’t really accepted,” he said. His name gave away the fact he wasn’t ethnically Jewish.

At the same time, he never left Christianity, he said. “I wanted to be His brother, a part of his family, historically and corporeally. I wanted to be like Him to begin with. It has worked very well. It drew me closer and closer to Him.”

He spent time in Israel on a trip with 70 Jews, he said. He was the only gentile on the trip. He was able to see the birthplace of Jesus, and he spent the summer in the Israeli Defense Force. He also spent time working on a socialist kibbutz in a powdered-milk factory.

Wilson said one of his favorite parts of the Scriptures is “Sarah laughed,” from the Hebrew Scripture.

Abraham met three strangers at the tent door. While killing and cooking a calf for them, they said Sarah was going to have a baby.

“How can I have pleasure now that I am old?” she asked.

She was 90, Wilson said.

“It affirms the humanity of these God lovers,” he said. In another story, Abraham came home and said God told them to pack up and move to Canaan. Sarah asked, “Which God?”

He is the first one to say, “The God,” Wilson said. “He was the father of the faith.”

Stories like these make up the best preaching too, he said. “The best preaching leaves you with a story you can attach to your own life because it’s a story about human beings and their interaction with God and each other.”