Author reveals life of pioneering minister who started in Wykoff

Author Cynthia Frank Stupnik
By : 
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy
Spring Valley Tribune

A childhood fascination with the first woman to receive full-clergy rights in the Minnesota Methodist Conference in 1958 led author Cynthia Frank Stupnik to write about Mary MacNicholl, who once served the Wykoff, Spring Valley and Fillmore United Methodist churches.

“My title page is ‘Mary MacNicholl: A Woman with Vision,’ and I started at her beginning, and found historical information about her famous family that no one I know knew, and I will finish with her death, so it’s pretty straightforward – a beginning to end legacy,” stated Stupnik. 

Stupnik was originally scheduled to return to Wykoff UMC, where MacNicholl first officially took the pulpit, this spring to present a program, but conflicts postponed her appearance. 

Destined to be minister

MacNicholl’s vision of becoming a Methodist minister came to her when she was in kindergarten.  Throughout her life, she followed a narrow path, with some bends and turns, to reach that goal. She faced daunting challenges, especially when she had to defend herself from male bias, noted Stupnik. 

“By understanding how she forged a path for others to follow, one can truly understand God’s place for women in His church. Mary MacNicholl died in 1979 from a rare form of blood disease.  If she were alive today, she would be proud of the many women who have fought the good fight not to be identified as a ‘woman minister’ but simply to be identified as a minster, a reverend, or a pastor,” she said.

MacNicholl’s autobiography began with her arrival, of course, but chronicled her fierce determination to overcome the obstacles placed before her as she aspired to take the pulpit as an ordained minister. She was born to Jay Alexander and Mary Boyd Stoll MacNicholl on April 21, 1915.  Their lives, surrounded by love, were in a Methodist home, with the emphasis on “Methodist” as four of her father’s uncles, all MacNicholls, were members of the New York East Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. 

“I cannot tell the day when I decided to be a minister.  I went into the first grade in 1921 determined to preach,” MacNicholl stated in the writing of Stupnik. “I intentionally did nothing to hinder that dream and tried to do everything I thought would make me become one.  No drinking, no dancing, no card-playing were the rules in my Methodist home.  It never occurred to me to rebel, largely because all my Stoll relatives wanted me to, and later, much later, some of my MacNicholl in-laws also wanted me to.” 

She went to Temple University, commuting each day because it was cheaper.  She finally decided that her father was not likely to borrow on his life insurance in the future to send her to Drew Theological Seminary.  Therefore, she added teacher college courses to her straight liberal arts and graduated in 1938.  She couldn’t find a teaching job in either New Jersey or Pennsylvania, though she was certified in each. 

“Easter morning 1939, between the sunrise service and the regular worship service at 11, I became convinced that one doesn’t tell God how she will serve Him, but she serves.  So unknown to my family, I applied to the Woman’s Home Missionary Society for Service,” Stupnik wrote.  “They offered me a job in Marc Center, Chicago.  When I told my family, they were astonished, and it took so long for them to allow me to accept that I lost the job.  But I learned a valuable lesson. I tell no one about jobs until they are accomplished facts.” 

Stupnik encounters MacNicholl

Stupnik’s childhood fascination with the no-nonsense MacNicholl garnered enough of her attention that she chose to write her own account of MacNicholl’s ascent from a girl who had decided firmly that she would be a pastor to ordained pastor, and the first ordained female minister in the Minnesota Methodist Conference at that. 

Stupnik did not attend Wykoff United Methodist Church as she was born in St. Cloud and raised in Clearwater.  However, MacNicoll was sent to the Central Minnesota District in 1961 when Stupnik was 11. 

“Having a woman minister was unusual.  I noticed her eyes that sparkled, and her long hair wrapped around the top of her head,” she said. “I admired Mary Mac’s strength of character, which was obvious to me as a preteen and teenager.  As far as I know, she was accepted by most people in my village and the two other churches she served.  She had confidence, and I trusted her knowledge about my spiritual journey.  She confirmed me and three or four other people.  I felt honored that she took us and drove us to the Hennepin Avenue Methodist Church and Conference office as part of our education for confirmation.  I felt honored that she came to my after-graduation from high school party.  I walked into the house, and there she was, sitting in the dining room.  As far as I know, I was the only one who had invited her, though she was a close friend of my mother’s, too.”     

Call to write

As Stupnik was waiting for her second in a series novel to be picked up, she said she felt a call to write something about MacNicholl. At the time that she started researching around 2017 she found little about her online and she found just one article in a southern Minnesota newspaper. She first found a dormmate of hers, Muriel Hayward Neve, who lived with MacNicholl and another student in the 1940s at Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey.  Neve became a missionary to Japan.  Next, she communicated with a cousin, Mary Lee MacNicholl Ellis, who filled in a lot of family dynamics and her own admiration for this woman-minister. 

Then she found retired minister Pat Toschak, June Finke, and other former parishioners from the Wykoff Methodist Church when MacNicholl was there.  They encouraged her to write about this beloved woman.

“The more I researched, the more the doors of communication opened.  I received information, pictures, contacts and beyond, from United Methodist Church historical societies or historians from Minnesota to New York to New Jersey,” said Stupnik. “I made contact with a number of other retired ministers like Ted Colescott, who knew and worked with Mary during her last appointment in the western part of Minnesota.  He, by the way, presided at her memorial service after she took leave of absence to move back east to Philadelphia to take care of her mother, who had taken care of her for so many years.”

Her mother had had a stroke in Minnesota while MacNicholl was still serving the Central Minnesota churches of Clearwater, Big Lake and Clear Lake.  Even though MacNicholl moved back to care for her mother, she became ill in 1978 with a rare blood disease and died before her elderly mother.  

Challenges, rewards in research

Stupnik had challenges in her research of this woman who was very private, as she wished “I could pull back the curtains of time to listen more to what she said” so she would be able to remember more clearly what she taught and some of the experiences she had with her. 

There were many rewards, though, as the researcher by trade knows how to dig and snoop, finding so much information as well as making many friends along the way. 

“I was surprised by most everything I didn’t know.  She was a fighter who had to fight like most women now did to get what they want.  She started early, even in preschool or kindergarten to become a minister,” Stupnik said. “I will have to ask permission for one secret to be shared.  Hmm…her favorite ice cream.  I dug and dug.  Everyone who knew her has some knowledge, so I hope I have written her whole story.”    

Visit to Wykoff

Although Stupnik postponed her Wykoff UMC visit, she has been making presentations that started after she wrote the essay – more than 40 documented pages. She has also provided photographs to the essay, which she has also sent to those who provided information about MacNicholl because she wanted feedback. 

“They were all overwhelmed by what I found.  I’m not sure if I’ll find more – but we never know,” she said.     

Though her stop in Wykoff as a presenter has been put off into the future, Stupnik did pay a visit to the old church where MacNicholl first officially took the pulpit on a trip to Iowa to visit her ailing aunt. She and her sister stopped in on a Sunday afternoon. 

“I didn’t realize the doors were open -- but tried anyway. I went in and sat in the first pew – alone – because I wanted to feel what Mary felt like when she approached the church, her first assignment as a minister in Minnesota,” Stupnik said. “I was overcome with awe.  I am still researching.  I am still hoping to be invited to present this woman who became the first woman to be ordained in the Minnesota Methodist Conference.” 



Keep up the good work Cindy.  Enjoy reading your articles