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New Horizons

A Career Conversion

Svetlana Shkolnikova

Although she’s been out of the classroom for more than six years, retired high school English teacher Donna Trebilcox continues to get notes and letters from her former students.

 And each of them contains essentially the same message: “Mrs. T, you were the most caring teacher. It felt like you really cared about us.”

Taking an interest in the lives of her students came naturally to Trebilcox, who credits her religious sensibility for the way she interacted with young people. She was never quick to judge and tried never to hold a grudge. And although she firmly believes in the separation of church and state, Trebilcox was not afraid to examine students’ questions about religion in class.

So when she decided that she would retire early to become a priest, she says the people close to her, including her students, were not surprised.

“When I was dating my husband he always told me I would become a minister,” says Trebilcox. “When I finally announced it he said, ‘Well, I’ve been waiting for you all these years!’”

Trebilcox has been involved in the church all her life, but said she really got hooked when she was invited to sing at an Episcopal church 16 years ago. The “beauty of the liturgy” and the “openness of the church” appealed to her and in that setting, she felt a religious call that eventually led her to pursue a new career.

After nearly 29 years teaching at Dallas High School in Dallas, Pennsylvania, Trebilcox left to attend a theological seminary in New York City where she spent three rigorous years studying religious texts, writing papers, and completing a field assignment. Now she is entering her third year as rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Lee, Massachusetts, a small parish in the Berkshire Mountains.

There were sacrifices along the way, the toughest of which was being apart from her husband and leaving behind their Pennsylvania home. But the good things that came out of making the transition from teacher to priest “cancelled them out.”

Trebilcox was happy to learn that being a priest has a large teaching component (and there are times when she’s on the learning end of that exchange). But she does admit to sometimes missing the classroom and working with young people.

  “I now work mostly with adults and honestly, they’re not as interesting! They’re very cautious and into their own lives,” says Trebilcox. “Kids are always challenging you, keeping you on your toes.”

Trebilcox tries to forge ahead, though. She always makes sure to include a teaching aspect in her weekly sermons. It’s getting people to really open up to her that has proved to be more difficult.

“I found that I’m not as effective when I have a collar on,” says Trebilcox. “People have certain opinions [about priests] so the collar is almost a barrier to the kinds of caring relationships I had with my students, it’s a barrier to real engagement.”

On the lighter side, Trebilcox loves that she can now sleep in almost every morning except Sunday. But she certainly hasn’t escaped administrative work. Whatever she’s doing, Trebilcox says a background in teaching has been incredibly valuable.

“I’ve been told by other priests that teachers make some of the best religious officials,” says Trebilcox. “Teaching prepared me for just about everything, and I’m still doing it now, just doing it a bit differently.”

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