Lucinda Ashby stands in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Saratoga on Jan. 11 as the fourth bishop of the Diocese of El Camino Real. (Photo courtesy of Ashby)

Former Country Day Spanish teacher rises to Episcopal bishop on learning odyssey that began in Costa Rica, Peru

Rev. Lucinda Ashby kneels in front of the archbishop in St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Saratoga. Priests gather around her as the audience sings a hymn. There are over 100 people inside, but the atmosphere is ecclesiastical and serene. As the hymn finishes, the archbishop says a prayer, and the priests lay their hands on Ashby’s head. 

Once this procession on Jan. 11 finished, the former Country Day teacher was the fourth bishop of the diocese of Salinas-based El Camino Real, spanning 42 congregations from Santa Clara to San Luis Obispo.

“During the consecration, which is a long service, I felt very grounded,” Ashby said. “I remember feeling tired briefly. Part of it is because the vestments that I was wearing probably weighed about 25 pounds.

“(After the consecration), I could have taken them off, but there were pictures, which went on forever. … ” 

As bishop, Ashby supervises the churchgoers and clergy of the diocese.

“I spend time caring for them, making sure that they have resources to do what they need to do, and making sure that people adhere to the basic rules and functioning of the whole church — people, budget, worship, property and pastoral care,” Ashby said.

“I liked the calm and safety of being on a boat during a storm. It was like being lulled to sleep while floating in a bathtub.”

— Lucinda Ashby

During the shelter-in-place order, Ashby said she is spending more time on Zoom meetings and phone calls to ensure the clergy is prepared to lead its people through the pandemic.

“I write letters, make statements and record videos to get the message across that we will adhere to the mandates of the county public health departments and the guidelines of our governor,” Ashby said. “I give encouragement when people are low, and admonish them when they stray from good leadership.”

Thirty-eight years prior, Ashby taught Spanish at Country Day. In 1982, Ashby graduated from Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, with a degree in Spanish literature, which she studied due to her upbringing.

“I was raised bilingually in (Costa Rica and Peru),” Ashby said. “It was natural for me to fall into Spanish literature.”

After graduating from Oberlin, Ashby became the middle and high school Spanish teacher at Country Day in 1982. She was 22.

“I had been teaching in college, but I wasn’t used to teaching junior high and high school,” Ashby said. “So I had a lot to learn about being a part of the faculty, teaching kids who were not much younger than I was and living in a place I had never lived before.”

Yet Ashby learned quickly. “The best thing about teaching at Country Day was that they gave me a lot of (opportunities) to learn, and they were accepting of my mistakes when I was starting out,” Ashby said. “There were a few of us who came in that same year who were all about the same age, so there was a lot of mentoring and support around us.”

Still, Ashby said teaching students who were similar to her in age was a challenge.

“I had to learn that I could not be friends with my students, as much as I really liked them,” Ashby said. “That was something I had to learn early.

“It’s funny now when I look at it. I see them posting on Facebook, and I realize, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re basically within the same age group.’”

Ashby said she liked introducing literature for her students to interpret and enjoy.

“I really enjoyed bringing the sophistication of (literature) to my students,” Ashby said. “I think a lot of people didn’t understand how a language can be such an eye-opening thing into another culture.”

Lucinda Ashby (bottom right) poses with her family on their trip to Costa Rica. (Photo courtesy of Ashby)

Former SCDS history teacher Sue Nellis, who joined Country Day the same year as Ashby, said she was impressed by Ashby’s enthusiasm.

“She had lots of interesting ways of presenting Spanish,” Nellis said. “She had lived in Peru and was really up on the culture and not just (teaching) the verbs and vocabulary. She did a lot of fun things, and she brought her enthusiasm and the opportunity she had living outside the United States into her lesson plans.”

Ashby taught at Country Day for 10 years before becoming the head of school for Courtyard Private School (205 24th St.), a K-8 institution. Ashby, then 32, said she had to learn about interacting with parents as an administrator.

“I had to get used to how parents would react about what was going on with their kids,” Ashby said. “Even though I was a parent at that time, it was (difficult) to understand where all these parents were coming from and how they were perceiving things.

“(Part of being an administrator) is acquiring that wisdom to know that you’re balancing (the opinions of parents and teachers), that it’s important to hold that in balance and that you can’t be (impulsive) about what you’re doing,” Ashby said. 

After five years, Ashby stepped down from the position.

“I had (helped improve) that school pretty quickly,” Ashby said. “One of the things I talked about with the school board was that, in order for the school to make the greater leap, I knew I would have to step out.”

Ashby then received an invitation from Dan White, the SCDS headmaster at the time, to help him build a school in Rumsey Indian Rancheria in Yolo County. She became the educational consultant for the project.

“That was a community where education hadn’t had a lot of value,” Ashby said. “(The community) had nobody who had graduated from high school.” 

Ashby taught a general education class to four parents of prospective students.

“I had to be strategic about (the curriculum) because it was trying to instill the value (of education),” Ashby said. “And, honestly speaking, teaching that (general education) class was the best teaching I’ve ever done, and it was just incredibly rewarding.”

After overseeing the school program for a year, Ashby became a Spanish teacher and the chaplain of St. Michael’s Episcopal Day School (2140 Mission Ave., Carmichael). There, Ashby started pursuing her passion for religion.

“I attended the Episcopal Church, and I was starting to look at becoming an ordained priest,” Ashby said. “So the bishop at that time, (who was also) the headmaster of the school, put me in as chaplain because I could teach and learn about being a chaplain.”

“She brought her enthusiasm and the opportunity she had living outside the United States into her lesson plans.”

— Sue Nellis

Achieving priesthood was Ashby’s lifelong dream.

“I had thought of (becoming a priest) since I was a little girl,” Ashby said. “But I would think about it, then I’d move away from it because I thought, ‘That’s just a silly idea.’ When I was at Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento, an Episcopal Church, they had two (female) priests there. I thought, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’ So I began to learn from them.”

Ashby said her greatest challenge as a chaplain was teaching children to understand the Bible.

“(One day), I was leading chapel services, and right up front were these kindergartners,” Ashby said. “I remember watching them and thinking, ‘Nothing that I’m doing is making sense to these kids.’”

Then came 9/11. As the wave of awe and terror struck the school, Ashby, a third-year chaplain, and the faculty faced a big challenge.

“I spent a lot of time just sitting with (the faculty) and talking through how we should talk to kids about this and also how to help the parents, trying to get them to turn off the televisions and not have kids watching the same thing over and over again,” Ashby said.

Soon after 9/11, Ashby underwent surgery (she declined to elaborate), which damaged her vocal cords. 

“I did not expect my voice to come back with any strength, and I did not expect to be able to sing again,” Ashby said.

However, her loss of speech couldn’t stop her love of learning. Since she could not teach, Ashby attended seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley. While studying, Ashby trained at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Davis. 

“For about a year, I would sit in class, and I had these notecards,” Ashby said. “I would write my questions on notecards and hold them up so that another student would read my question.

“I was worried I would never be a priest because I didn’t know how I would do it without a voice,” Ashby said. 

Though different from before, Ashby’s voice returned after about a year.

“I was amazed and humbled that I was gifted with the return of my voice so that I could continue teaching, preaching and speaking with people,” Ashby said. “I had to learn to be patient as it returned, not expecting too much and not being disappointed when it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. I am very grateful that I can speak.”

Ashby’s third grade class photo in 1968. (Photo courtesy of Ashby)

Like many of her fellow college students, Ashby commuted to Berkeley. Unlike many of them, she lived on a boat.

“I was commuting back and forth from Sacramento to Berkeley on I-80, and that commute was dreadful,” Ashby said. “A friend of mine was in (my) seminary, and she had a boat (that) she was living on. She was from Sacramento as well, but she was living on this boat because she owned it, (so) she invited me to live with her.”

For three to four days a week, Ashby lived on the 26-foot sailboat at the Berkeley Marina.

“What surprised me was how small the space was; I am tall, and I kept hitting my head. The space I slept in was about the size of a coffin!” Ashby said. “Yet the boat had internet and everything we needed.

“I liked the calm and safety of being on a boat during a storm. It was like being lulled to sleep while floating in a bathtub. At seminary, they called us the ‘boat sisters.’ I never forgot that (experience), but I don’t think I’d repeat it.”

After finishing her studies, Ashby became ordained as a deacon. She explained that the deacon and priest are holy orders. The deacon’s calling is to work with the underprivileged, refugees and immigrants. The priest generally works within a parish, giving care to people and participating in church programs and worship services. 

After becoming a deacon, Ashby continued her training at St. Martin’s and was ordained as a priest after 1 1/2 years. Ashby stayed at St. Martin’s for another 1 1/2 years as assistant rector before moving to St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church (2300 Edison Ave.), where she served as the rector.

“St. Matthew’s was really interesting because it was a multicultural setting,” Ashby said. “It was perfect because I’m bilingual, so I fit right in there.”

After serving as the rector for 6 1/2 years, Ashby became the canon to the ordinary, serving under the bishop of Idaho.

“My job was to work with all of the congregations in the entire diocese, and it’s huge,” Ashby said. “I was in my car about 50% of the time driving from congregation to congregation. And I was teaching, preaching, leading worship and facilitating training.”

After serving as the canon to the ordinary for eight years, Ashby was elected on June 1 to become the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of El Camino Real.

“By the time I left (Idaho), I had managed to turn over everything,” Ashby said. “I got a report just about (a month) ago that it’s all working. 

“But there was another piece that I think is not replaceable, and that was the relationships that I had with individual people all over the diocese. Sitting down and talking to people, learning about their lives and tending to them. You can’t replace that.”

Ming Zhu

Originally published in the April 28 edition of the Octagon.

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