First Methodist minister in Minnesota served in SV

The Rev. Mary MacNicholl, right, and her mother, Mary.
By : 
Mary Jo Dathe
Glimpses of Yesteryear

Recently the Spring Valley Tribune carried an article regarding Cynthia Stupnik of Rice, Minnesota, who had received a grant to research the life of the Rev. Mary MacNicoll who once served in Spring Valley.  The reverend began her ministry in Fountain, Wykoff and Fillmore, being the first fully ordained female Methodist minister in Minnesota.  In fact, Judge James Gritzner, my former neighbor on South Broadway, sent me something written by the Rev. Doug Norris, a retired pastor, who said:

“She and I worked together from 1961 to 1966.  Mary wore two dresses, a black one for winter, and a white one with black designs for summer...they both hung well below the knees.  She wore her hair in a bun, wire rimmed glasses, and a little black hat which she only took off when she led worship services. She carried a Bible under one arm and a Methodist Discipline under the other as she went forth to preach the gospel and shape up those rural Minnesota congregations.  She had a delightful sense of humor and a no-nonsense administrative style. No one wondered where Mary stood!"

Mary told that as early as kindergarten she had decided to become a Methodist minister because she had four uncles who were members of the New York East Conference of the Methodist Church.  She followed a strict regimen — no drinking, no dancing, no card-playing — all rules of her loving, supportive family. As a young woman she attended Temple University, knowing her father could not afford to send her to Drew Theological Seminary.  She added teacher college credits to a full schedule for a liberal arts degree.  She graduated in 1938, but could not find a teaching job, so she volunteered in 1939 at a deaconess home in New Jersey, teaching sewing to young girls.  Finally in 1940, she was sent to a Navaho Methodist Mission School in New Mexico.  It was 1942 when she was commissioned as a home missionary by the Women's Division of Christian Service and sent back to Florida.  Here she entered the black community, where she felt very comfortable and needed.  The staff was biracial and she formed many lifelong friendships.  She taught history and civics, and when no Latin teacher could be found, she taught that as well. 

Her dream of ministry began to come true when she requested and was granted a sabbatical to attend Drew Theological Seminary, eventually obtaining a full scholarship.  From 1947 she worked with mentor, the Rev. Roger Squire, who allowed her to experience all phases of ministry except for weddings and funerals, but including youth work, preaching, home and hospital visits.  She wrote to five district superintendents and had job offers from all of them.  She accepted a three-point charge in southern Minnesota and she had many happy memories of those years.  Fillmore was a small group but with very loyal members; Fountain was always conservative in spending but did well; and Wykoff was open to new ideas and programs of her lady pastor.  She became deeply involved in counseling former patients of the Rochester State Hospital since there was no regular social service available at the time for patients on their discharge following treatment.

In 1955 she was appointed to Spring Valley, with great misgivings.  She did not want a one-point charge, she was 40 years old, and there were other reasons.  This was a church of 340 members and she would be following 18 years of ministry by the very popular Harry Evans and two years of Alquin Toevs — very big shoes to fill.  To her amazement she liked it a lot.  She began to help with community service — helping to organize the first Community Chest, and serving on the hospital fundraising committee.  In 1956 she was amazed and gratified when the Minnesota Conference voted to elect her to membership.  She was the first Methodist woman pastor in Minnesota and the 12th in the nation.

Her mother, Mary, sold the family home and decided to accompany her as a housekeeper/manager for the next 22 years.  Mary stated she regarded her ability to convince her mother to share her busy life as her greatest triumph.  When Mary Sr. became ill and moved back to Philadelphia, Mary took a leave of absence.  Again the Rev. Norris: "We visited them in Philadelphia and found that Mary had lost her zest, and she died soon after. The irony is that Mary Jr. died before her mother did. The doctor felt that the cancer which killed her probably had its inception from the time she left the ministry."

The Rev. Mary MacNicholl left here in 1961, going to the Central Conference. In 1964, she was appointed to the Board of Minnesota Council of Churches, which was 30 percent female, but she was the only one practicing her profession, and the only single woman.  All we know is that Spring Valley was very blessed by this gracious woman, the first female Methodist minister in the state of Minnesota.

We invite you to visit the Methodist Church Museum on Courtland Street, where you can find an extensive collection of artifacts from the various churches in Spring Valley; it is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.