The NYTS family mourns the passing of Rev. Dr. Minka S. Sprague, former Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Languages
Minka Shura Sprague was not one to really play by the rules and loved to leave people with something to think about while feeling so loved. On December 26, 2020, at the age of 76, she played by her rules and died peacefully in New Orleans after a brief illness. She has left an enormous number of people with a lot to think about and yet feeling so loved and grateful for having known her.
Minka was born on November 19, 1944 in Kansas City, Missouri in an Episcopal hospital – Harry Truman country. “Everybody had a Truman story.” (Hers involved an encounter at the local public library.) She had a “horribly good childhood” and “breezed through” until she was 15 when her father died. Her Aunt taught her how to read at the age of 4 when she had rheumatic fever. She said, “It changed everything. Probably the greatest gift anyone ever gave me. It made me curious about the world outside of Kansas City.” This complimented Minka’s innate social nature. She “visited all the old people all the time” in her village and said “I’ve been a village person ever since.”
In 1954, “Brown vs Board of Education of Topeka” had a significant impact on her. Given Topeka’s proximity to Kansas City, Minka commented, “We were right in the middle of it.” To her, desegregation seemed like an opportunity to know more people. She also distinctly remembered when the polio vaccine was introduced because it marked the first summer she could go swimming (when she was 12). She was a strong advocate of science and vaccines and stated that penicillin saved her life. While in the hospital shortly before her death, she questioned hospital staff about whether they had received the Covid-19 vaccine and if not, why not.
She would go on to the University of Minnesota and receive a BA in History. She then married and moved to Cleveland, Ohio and worked in advertising at a department store. It wasn’t who she was so she left and went into journalism and got a job for the local newspaper. This too turned out to be frustrating. “It was awful. We had to write about teen suicides and call them natural deaths. Horrible.”
In 1974, she and her family moved to New YorkCity. The church had always been a safe place for her in high school, so when they got to New York, she made some connections with an Episcopal Church. As it turned out, the General Theological Seminary needed people to rent their apartments. They suggested to Minka that if she rented from them, the difference in cost of living compared to renting a place in Manhattan would easily cover tuition to get a Masters in Divinity. Her response was, “Are you out of your mind?”
This was 1974 – Nixon resigns and the first 11 women (known as the “Philadelphia Eleven”) are “irregularly” ordained as priests in the Episcopal Church. As she put it, “It was very interesting times. The church fell in love with me and I fell in love with it. I saw it as a way to help people.” She got her Masters in Divinity and later a ThD in Biblical languages from the General Seminary. She was fluent in Biblical Greek. Desmond Tutu was also at the Seminary and had dinner with Minka and her family weekly. For upwards of 20 years, she was Professor of New Testament Studies and Biblical Languages at New York Theological Seminary and served as Deacon at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. An AIDS epidemic, 9/11, and teaching in the Master’s program at Sing Sing Prison occurred during thistime in New York.
In 2003 she did the two things she said she’d never do: moved below the Mason-Dixon line and became a priest. She was ordained a Priest during the 10 years she was Associate Rector at St James’ Episcopal Church in Jackson, Mississippi. Minka came to New Orleans in 2013 to serve as Vicar and Chaplain of The Chapel of the Holy Spirit. Since retiring in 2017, she has covered in half the Episcopal Churches in the Diocese of Louisiana, from Angola to Morgan City and Theriot. She also served as an instructor in the Honors Program at Loyola University.
She was the youngest registered member of the Jeannette Rankin Brigade and protested against the Vietnam War. Her activism, particularly for women’s rights, began a journey for justice and peace that has included civil rights, gay rights, racial reconciliation, and prison education. At the start of 2020, she attended a reproductive rights rally and said, “I thought I was done with this in 1973. Just shows you that women’s rights is a lifetime’s effort.” Not too long after that, she was elected to the Board of the New Orleans Abortion Fund.
She had a wide range of interests: an avid reader, author, practiced yoga regularly (she had enviable flexibility and could do the splits right up to the end), loved to dance, go to the movies, and attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with her son and daughter-in-law. Her win percentage at her weekly Mahjongg group might have been higher had she not been caught with too few tiles on more than one occasion. Minka credits reading a book about Anne Frank in High School as sparking a lifelong interest in Judaism. She is a member of Touro Synagogue, rarely missed Shabbat services and could be frequently heard to say, “I’ve always felt I’m half a Jew”. And of course, friends and family. She made so many connections and connected so many people to one another; it was a constant source of joy for her.
Minka was preceded in death by her parents Daniel Shura and Marianne Francis Shura. She is survived by her daughter, Caroline Barrett Torres and husband Douglas Alexander Torres of Doylestown, Pennsylvania and their children, Cole Santiago Torres (17) and Sasha Barrett Torres (15); son Webb Beckner-Sprague and wife Chrisanne Beckner-Sprague of Olympia, Washington; sisters Allison Barrett Stout, The Rev’d Shay Craig, and brother Daniel Shura.
Minka said she tended to have an instinct to say “no” but that throughout her life, she pushed herself to “always try to say ‘yes’ unless there is a reason to say ‘no’ – it changes your horizons.” She had an irrepressible personality, an enormous capacity to give to others and love everyone however they showed up. She will be horribly missed. And if you’re now exhausted after reading about her colorful life. Well good. It would make her smile. And like so many of us have heard her say when closing a conversation, “To be continued……and love”.
Memorial service plans will be released at a later date. Donation suggestions: In lieu of flowers, donations to the New Orleans Abortion Fund would be appreciated (neworleansabortionfund.org) or the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana (www.edola.org).