After living for 103 years in certain hope and for many uncertain months in home hospice, on October 6th Sylvia Lucena Woodgates was finally conveyed into Paradise and the Lord’s presence to be reunited with her mother and father, brother, husband, first-born son, daughter and countless other relations and friends. How thrilling it must be for her to begin partaking of the pleasures at God’s right hand “for evermore.”
Syl’s funeral, with reception following, will begin at 11:00 am Wednesday, October 24 at Church of the Holy Family (Episcopal), 200 Hayes Road, Chapel Hill. Right afterwards, at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, 82 Kimberly Drive, Durham, her ashes will be committed to a place next to those of her husband, the Rev. George M. L. Woodgates (who died in 1990).
Born Maidie Lucena Turner in St. Petersburg, Fla. on October 8, 1915 to physician parents Arthur Russell Turner and Lucena Eddings Turner, her first name proved too difficult for some people to remember (is it Maisie? Maddy?). Her mother came home one day and threw the infant onto a bed, declaring, “We are changing this child’s name!” From her father’s side of the family “Sylvia” was chosen to replace “Maidie.”
The sudden death of Arthur Turner when Sylvia was just six years old left her mother all alone to raise her and her adopted older brother, Horace. Their mother moved the family to Southern California to be close to her own parents while struggling to open a private medical practice (in Los Angeles in 1910 she had become the first female graduate of the College of Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons). When the Great Depression came she had to send Sylvia to Winchester, Mass. to attend high school while living with the family of a prosperous sister.
Sylvia’s reluctant return in 1933 at age 18 precipitated a spiritual revival for the somewhat worldly young woman. That led to her enrolling in Southern California Bible School (now Vanguard University) in Pasadena, where she graduated in 1937 with a degree in Sacred Music. She was soon employed for several years as a music instructor at the Monte Vista Christian School in Watsonville, Calif. While there, in addition to performing in local churches with The Sharon Singers and organizing a young men’s a cappella gospel quartet, she occasionally played piano at recreational gatherings for young men in the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was during one such sing-along in the winter of 1941 that she met George Woodgates, a 26-year old CCC supervisor from Hanford, Calif. They were married on July 19. Just six months later, following the start of the Second World War and George’s deployment with the Army Air Force to North Africa and later Italy, they became separated for three-and-a-half years.
After the War they lived in Hanford, building a small house and farming near George’s parents’ ranch. But after the stillborn death of their first child, David Allan, in 1947, George felt called to the ordained ministry. They left farming and moved to Berkeley, Calif. where George could attend an Episcopal seminary. There, in 1950, they rejoiced at the birth of a daughter, Deborah Jeanne. Two years later, son James Russell was born.
Following George’s ordination in 1952, the family moved to Fresno, Calif. During the next six years George successfully planted an Episcopal mission (now St. Columba Church) while Sylvia looked after the kids and provided piano accompaniment and direction for the church choirs and Sunday school. In 1958 George answered an unexpected calling from Illinois to become assistant rector of Christ Church, Winnetka. But by late 1959, the family was living in Greenwich, Conn., after George accepted an appointment to The Episcopal Church’s National Council (now Executive Council).
During seven years in Greenwich, Sylvia expanded her musical talent by learning to play the pipe organ and becoming a successful substitute church organist. At a time of rapid social change and creeping confusion within the church, Sylvia’s comprehensive Bible school education enabled her to also give wise spiritual counsel to many clergy wives.
In 1966, George was eager to return to California and church planting, this time in Bakersfield. The barren sun-parched oilfields of Kern County are very different from the leafy landscapes of Greenwich. So, too, are the cultural and spiritual landscapes. But Sylvia persevered and made the most of the next 14 years. She saw Debbie marry the boy next door (from a couple of blocks away, actually) and Russell graduate from college and get a good job in Washington. Sylvia also co-founded the Kern Adult Literacy Council, based on the pioneering methods of Christian missionary Frank Laubach. Together, she and George successfully ministered to the growing congregation of All Saints Episcopal Church (now All Saints Anglican), incorporating elements of the charismatic renewal and Cursillo movement.
In 1980, at age 65, George and Sylvia retired to Chapel Hill, NC. Over the next 10 years they made many friends there and in Louisburg, Roxboro, and Durham, where George worked as an Episcopal supply priest. They also toured Israel and Great Britain and traveled across North America. That all ended with George’s death in 1990, leaving Sylvia alone as a clergy widow, unsettled about her identity and purpose.
Within two years, though, she was busy lecturing (“Birds of the Bible,” “From Tent to Temple”) at the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement, playing piano for eurhythmy sessions at The Waldorf School, getting certified as a Spiritual Director and leading Bible and book studies in her home. As a member (since 1960) of the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross, she led “quiet days” at area churches. At Church of the Holy Family she moderated Sunday morning discussion groups, co-founded a healing prayer team and trained parish lectors. She was even awarded a free membership at Curves for Women by the managers who were so impressed that in her mid-nineties she was participating in workout sessions two or three times each week.
The premature death of Debbie in 2005 was a deep sadness for Sylvia, though tempered by a continued connection to Debbie’s now-married daughters, Sarah Lucena (Flores) and Emily Grace (Elizondo), both living in California. The birth in 2016 of a namesake great-granddaughter, Sylvia Evangeline Flores, was a unique honor.
Sylvia Lucena Woodgates will be missed for many things, including her good cooking, easy-going temperament, quick smile, generosity, enthusiastic piano playing, and ability to recite Jabberwocky at a moment’s notice. Her legacy as a “spiritual mother” to many women (and some men) is especially noteworthy.
Even as a little girl it was said, “There’s always a patch of blue sky over Sylvia.” Her persistent trust in God (as a six-year old telling her just-widowed mother as she paced the floor, “Don’t you know worry is a sin?”), her unwillingness to criticize (“Well, I can think of worse things.”), and her gentle but persistent urging to seek God’s help when struggling with negative impulses (“Just ask Jesus to put his love/forgiveness/patience/right attitude in you.”) were always hard to resist.
Play on, Syl!