She had a young daughter, Andrea, and was working part time at a therapeutic nursery school in Manhattan. She had worked for decades as a psychologist and parent educator in the mental health field.
“I realized that I was more and more involved in church and that it was taking over more and more of my life, and I liked it,” said Mitchell, now 68. “And then it became clear to me that I was being called to ordained ministry. So I shouldn’t say this, but I was annoyed.”
“I felt, well, if I’m called to be ordained, that means I have to disrupt my life and go to seminary. And how am I going to do that?”
Mitchell, who grew up in Grace Episcopal Church in Jamaica, Queens, said she “wrestled with that for a long time.” The only person she confided in about it was her priest. Eventually, she said, ”I stopped fighting it.” And off she went to Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University.
During seminary, Mitchell said she worked in a predominantly white community — Greenwich, Connecticut — as part of her field placement. As an African-American woman, she called the experience “a revelation for a lot of people.”
“For a number of people in certain parts of the Episcopal church, it is a novelty just to see a black woman, much less what you do,” Mitchell said.
After she graduated and was ordained, Mitchell began work at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan. In several denominations, like Episcopalism, a clerical collar is a sign of ordained ministry. Even so, Mitchell said she would still sometimes get mistaken for a nun.
Those who didn’t know better would call her “Sister” and wouldn’t take her makeup and earrings into account, even though nuns typically don’t wear either.
“I guess they couldn’t figure out what else would a woman, maybe even a black woman, be doing with this thing on,” she said. “But most people sort of figure out what it is they’re looking at.”
‘I think there are people who take pride in the fact that there is a black female priest on the senior staff of the Bishop of Long Island.’ -The Rev. Canon Patricia Mitchell
Now, Mitchell is the canon for pastoral care at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City. She has been serving in the position for more than a year.
Mitchell said that when people find out that she’s on the bishop’s staff, “Then they’re really sort of taken aback. But it’s good for them to sort of have a little cognitive dissonance, like, ‘Oh, I have to think about this.’”
“Some people have never encountered a black female priest. So I think it’s important in terms of the position; I think there are people who take pride in the fact that there is a black female priest on the senior staff of the bishop of Long Island.”
A lot of Mitchell’s job as canon requires interpersonal skills — offering advice to clergy members, resolving conflicts between parishioners and simply lending a listening ear.
“When I read the position description, I felt it resonated with me. I had not expected anything like that to come along; I was ready for change. I realized that I really felt that that was where I was called to be.”
Being in ordained ministry for 16 years, her outfit is always “already decided for me in the morning.”
‘I wouldn’t say I’m fashion forward. So, fashion middle.’ -The Rev. Canon Patricia Mitchell
Mitchell wears clerical attire, which includes a black shirt and white collar — and on most days, she says she forgets that she’s even wearing a collar. On the weekends she dresses more casually in jeans and sweaters, but still “conservative, traditional, nothing flamboyant.”
Her favorite stores are Talbots and Chico’s. For clerical wear, she shops at CM Almy and Women Spirit, which cater to clergy and other church officials.
“I wouldn’t say I’m fashion forward. So, fashion middle,” she said with a laugh.
Mitchell says she’s still getting used to life on Long Island. She shares an apartment with a colleague in Mineola during the week, splitting her time with her home in Westchester County. Mitchell is still learning about Long Island and its Episcopal Diocese. “People have been very welcoming and really very lovely,” she said.
She still travels into Brooklyn and Manhattan whenever there’s a clergy member living there who needs her assistance. Mitchell does everything from visiting priests and deacons at hospitals to helping families plan funerals.
“Either going west, going east, depending upon where they were, and just checking up on them,” she said.
“Sometimes, and I know from my background in mental health, just being able to say, ‘I’m really struggling with so-and-so.’ They’re not necessarily even looking for a solution from you, and many times you don’t have the solution. But having some place where you can unburden yourself is very helpful.”
She added that the most rewarding part of her job is just being able to help others, particularly the church leaders. “Priests and deacons are people, too,” she said. “To whom do they go?”