In a lifetime that has taken her to all 50 states and an assortment of foreign countries, Marisa Sifontes hasn’t missed much.
She had been a lawyer for 20 years when she took part in a worldwide 30,000-mile “journey of discernment,” that can take place in small groups or as individuals.
She subsequently enrolled at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where she earned her divinity degree.
“I was looking at the different postings and made a list of who was looking at the time,” Marisa [pronounced Mareesa] said. “I saw Roanoke, crossed it out and said, ‘Nope, I’m not going there.’
“And, two or three days later, Eric [Long] calls me and says, ‘Hey, I’ve got this church in Roanoke. Are you interested, maybe, in talking about it?”
She had never met Long, the rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke.
“To me, that’s the work of the Holy Spirit when something like that happens — right ! — because you have an opinion of how you think you want things to go, or how you think they may go and God just laughs at you,” Marisa said
“So, when I got that call, I was like ‘OK,’ absolutely I’d be happy to talk to you because, clearly, I acted without having full information.”
Those were emotionally charged days following the May 2019 death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis.
“The first thing I did with any church was to look at the sermons that were being preached around the death of George Floyd,” said Marisa, now an associate rector at St. John’s. “In the church in general, we have the tendency to either lean into current events and help them inform our preaching or we don’t, right?
“Eric didn’t and doesn’t shy away from hard topics and so, to me, it was a place that, at least on first glance, I was interested in learning more about.”
For Long, the feeling was mutual.
“You put out a job description from our seminaries,” Long said. “We get tons of people interested in [a position]. Some of them I follow up on more than others. Obviously, her resume was very interesting. How she wrote and engaged with a question was deep and thoughtful.”
Marisa was raised in Buffalo, New York, and went to the college at the University of Pennsylvania before earning her law degree at the University of Michigan. She had met her husband, Scott, in law school and they moved to Washington, where Marisa worked one block from the White House.
That’s where she was working on Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
“When a recruiter called me a couple of weeks later and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this job in Richmond, Virginia, are you interested? I said, ‘Sign me up’ because that was a crazy [time] for many of us.’ “
For seven years, they lived in Richmond, where she worked at the McGuireWoods law practice and at Dominion Energy. They also had two sons, with one in the third grade and the other in kindergarten when their father, Scott, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
“For me, I had to go back to work,” Marisa said. “Typically, with pancreatic cancer, you get maybe six months and the diagnosis was delayed because they kept saying, 40-year-olds don’t get pancreatic cancer.”
The battle continued for 18 months until Scott was moved into hospice and subsequently died in a life-changing development for all of the family.
“I don’t know if I would have made space to go into ministry,” Marisa said. “Maybe I would have. I don’t know. I think that Scott being sick and and dying refocused me on the things that were important.
“After he passed away, you have those few years of figuring out what’s important and what matters — what things you want to you give your energy to.”
Her older son, Cole, went to boarding school of his own choosing and has finished his sophomore year at Amherst. He is taking a gap year while living in Roanoke, where his younger brother, Max, is in high school.
After selling their house in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2016, Marisa and her sons went on the road and lived and traveled in an RV for two years, spending a summer in Alaska for one stretch.
“While I was doing this, radically changing our lives so that I could be a full-time parent for a while, I came out of discernment and a committee said, ‘We don’t see you as a deacon. We see you as a priest.’
“I was wondering, ‘How is this going to happen?’ And, I’d just see green lights along the way.’ I needed that time just as much, having grown from being a caretaker for Scott to grieving his loss.’ “
Not long after visiting Roanoke, her older son, Cole, turned to her and said, ‘”This is the place.” Her younger son, Max, is more of an introvert but helps with video and other technical matters at St. John’s.
To some of the St. John’s parishioners, their first exposure to the new priest was when they heard her sing at services. It’s unlikely that her resume included time spent in an acapella group at Penn, where one of her fellow singers was 12-time Grammy Award winner John Legend.
“When she sings, it’s like the voice of God,” said parishioner Gunther Hoyt, a fan of Sifontes’ since her arrival, not that she was looking to take the town by storm.
“It’s a comfortable place and that’s why we liked it,” Marisa said. “I love living in Old Southwest, where we can walk downtown. Cole will take his bike and hop on the greenway … things like that.
“Roanoke’s easy to get to know. I think that’s one of the neat things about it — that there’s stuff to do. It’s the right size for us, not too big, not too small. It’s got a Target and Chipotle. Those are the things we need.”