Obituary: Rev Canon Lisa Eunson, American rector who made Scotland her home

Rev Canon Lisa Eunson's middle name, Kei, was Japanese for 'grace'
Rev Canon Lisa Eunson's middle name, Kei, was Japanese for 'grace'
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Rev Canon Lisa Eunson, Episcopal rector. Born: 18 May 1954, in Tokyo, Japan. Died: 17 June 2017, in Banchory, Kincardineshire, aged 63

Rev Lisa Eunson was the Shetland-descended American who made Deeside her home, and became the first woman to sit on the Chapter of St Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Aberdeen.

A natural leader and communicator, Lisa brought performance and narrative to her sermons, referencing scriptural points through pointers in her own rich life. A recovered alcoholic, her preferred reference was that she had been “sober since 1987”.

Coffee and hot chocolate were other matters entirely. With colleagues and friends, she would discuss and debate ecclesiastical matters in her favourite haunt (after her church of St Ternan’s) of a coffee shop on Banchory High Street, her fiercest argument being reserved for anyone taking what she regarded as her seat.

Lisa Kei Eunson spent her childhood years in Tokyo. Her journalist father, a veteran reporter of the European theatre of the Second World War, ran the Tokyo bureau of Associated Press, while her mother wrote books on East Asia. The family later moved to New York when her father became AP vice-president for broadcast services.

Lisa inherited a love of story and tale, and of people, talents she wove into her ministerial life. From Japan she took with her a lifetime love of the Orient; she would compose haiku, the three-line Japanese poems, while paintings from China and Japan decorated her rectory in Banchory.

A cradle Episcopalian, the youthful Eunson mixed singing in the choir of her church in Bronxville, New York, with musical theatre at high school. But the immediate career of the 18-year-old proved peripatetic. She remained for two years at the private Duke University in North Caroline before embarking via a student exchange to Goldsmiths in London. She left there after 12 months when her father contracted cancer.

His death threw her adrift. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley, then switched to a degree in English literature at San Francisco State University. Her theatrical talents saw her become part of the improvisational comedy scene in the San Francisco of the mid-70s, and she briefly married fellow performer Charlie Brown.

Long after, she would relate how her descent into alcoholism by her early 20s constructed a self-belief in the possibility of forgiveness and new beginnings, and that in her four decades of new life afterwards she drew on her experiences in giving practical support to others fighting addition. In 1987 she eschewed drink for all time, crediting Alcoholics Anonymous for giving her the means to refocus her life, and to learn to live one day at a time.

She changed her career, working in exhibitions and conferences, describing her starting point as “the girl at the desk” at age 23, and rising within 11 years to head 27 staff across five disciplines, managing trade shows for major corporations in some of the largest convention centres in the USA.

That was in 1998. Four years earlier, her mother died, and Lisa attended St James’s Episcopal Church in San Francisco, planning to go there three times “to cry for my mother’s passing”. But one of the pastors could – in Lisa’s colourful vocabulary – “preach paint off the walls”. She later recalled: “It was revealed to me that the God of my Sunday school stories was big enough to hold the depths of my adult spirituality”.

The upshot was that she entered divinity school in Berkeley, California, graduating in 2001, and becoming an associate rector in nearby Burlinghame before being ordained priest at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. She loved the appositeness of the name, for her middle name, Kei, is Japanese for “grace”.

She took a sabbatical in 2005 to visit Scotland to study her family history, and more 
particularly Shetland, from which her grandfather had emigrated as a young man. Back on the West Coast, she survived a first occurrence of cancer, an experience that made her determined “to live the dream”.

Searching from California for a posting as rector, she chanced on St Ternan’s in Banchory. It was a dream that for her came true, what she called “the bliss of my final years – to live in a place where you get to know people by name, and care for the community and beyond church walls. I have been held in the hammock of everyone’s love and prayers”.

She widened the scope of St Ternan’s, opening the place to theatre and lectures, involving herself in environmental projects and sustainable issues. When David Irvine of Drum organised an international gathering of Irvines, Lisa led the worship in the family Chapel of Drum at Drum Castle.

The initiative closest to her heart was expansion of her ministry to involve young people. Thus she brought forward the start time of the Christmas Eve midnight service to 9.30pm to make attendance easier for families, explaining dryly: “This is when it’s midnight in Bethlehem”.

When cancer struck again, she used her final days to organise her affairs, directing that her estate prime a trust she called Green Shoots, to help children flourish within the church community.

Her funeral proved a joyous celebration of a life well lived, complete with paper coffee atop her coffin, and the choir and congregation joining together to salute her at her departure with the Beatles’ song With A Little Help From My Friends.

Lisa was predeceased by her two sisters, and is survived by several nephews and nieces.

GORDON CASELY
KEN ELLIOTT