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It’s never too late to follow dreams

The Rev Wendy Thornburrow. PHOTO/FILE

Lisa Urbani

Wairarapa’s Wendy Thornburrow, 64, realised at the tender age of 17 that she wanted to serve in the ministry but took the scenic route to get there.

Church was always an important part of her life growing up in Havelock North, singing in the junior choir and attending the Youth Group.

At that time, women in the church could only be deacons, not ordained priests.

To study for the ministry, she needed a degree first, so she started a Bachelor of Science degree at Otago University, but fate intervened in the form of a new, young, single minister in the Presbyterian church in her hometown, Jim.

They began to see a lot of each other and became engaged the following Easter, assuring her parents that she would complete her degree.

Seven months after their marriage, Jim was assigned his first parish in Woodville.

Thus, at the very young age of 20, Wendy began her life as a minister’s wife, thinking that she could serve God just as well in that capacity.

Two children were born during their five years in Woodville, and later, two more when they spent seven years at Waikohu Co-operating Parish in Te Karaka, outside Gisborne.

Wendy found herself preaching and taking services regularly to assist her husband in the many churches within this parish.

She started training as a non-stipendiary priest on the suggestion of the Bishop of Waiapu, Peter Atkins, but it involved study and weekends away, and it became too difficult to continue.

The family moved to Bucklands Beach Co-operating Parish in Auckland, where Wendy’s help was less required as Jim had assistance.

A revival in the church resulted in a youth group of 200 young people, and it was an exciting time as they ran nationwide conferences with overseas speakers.

After 10 years at Bucklands Beach, Jim and Wendy had to move on according to church rules, and founded their own independent River of Life Christian Church, which is still in existence today.

Sadly, they discovered Jim was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, and handed over the reins to a younger minister, resigning from the leadership.

Two years after he went into care, Jim died.

They had been in Auckland for 28 years, with Wendy working as a funeral celebrant and receptionist for a funeral home for some 20 years.

With two of her children living nearby, she made the move to Masterton in 2016.

Again, she felt the call to serve, and confiding her long-cherished dream to be a priest in two trusted friends was all the encouragement she needed.

They persuaded her to start a Diploma in Anglican studies which would take three years of part-time study to complete.

Even though it was a daunting prospect, Wendy signed up to be part of a learning community in the Wellington Diocese and spent 12 weekends on a marae over the three years.

There were tutorials and assignments, and she had to upskill rapidly in technology.

Her lecturer was highly amused when she told him, “the last time I handed an assignment in I wrote it with my fountain pen and then walked across the campus to hand it in at the appropriate office!”

At first, she thought she was “too old for this”, but soon adapted, and finally the selection weekend came and Wendy was overjoyed to hear she had been accepted.

She had expected that only younger clergy would be chosen.

Now, spending her days tending to her parishioners in Wairarapa at St Matthew’s Anglican Church, she has realised her early ambition, proving that it’s never too late in life to follow your heart.

As she says, “every now and then I have a little regret that I didn’t do this sooner but quickly remember that God’s timing is perfect”.

“I have been blessed with the amazing support of the parish and now I feel like I am doing exactly what God wants me to do.”

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