Boat-building, song-spinning minister bids farewell to PT

Posted 5/27/20

For the better part of the past decade, the Rev. Simon de Voil has ministered to the community’s souls through song and fellowship, and helped its young people learn a productive trade in boat-building, but the end of this month marks his last service as music director and assistant minister at Unity Church of Port Townsend.

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Boat-building, song-spinning minister bids farewell to PT

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For the better part of the past decade, the Rev. Simon de Voil has ministered to the community’s souls through song and fellowship, and helped its young people learn a productive trade in boat-building, but the end of this month marks his last service as music director and assistant minister at Unity Church of Port Townsend.

De Voil and his wife Linden arrived in the area in November 2010, and while they hopscotched between Jefferson County, his native Scotland and Vermont over the next few years, they’ve remained on Marrowstone Island for the past five years.

The couple plan to leave in mid-June and land back in their former hometown of Plainfield, Vermont, where Linden has been offered a job teaching herbal medicine.

The couple also planned to lead a retreat on the island of Iona in Scotland in September, but with the global pandemic, de Voil said “that’s all a bit up in the air,” although he still plans to lead retreats and pilgrimages in Scotland once it’s possible again, and even return to Port Townsend on an annual basis.

“I’ll continue working as a sacred musician, spiritual director and independent minister,” de Voil said. “I now have quite a big parish online through Patreon, which is a membership platform where I share most of my work these days. My patrons are the ones who really make it possible for me to continue to create and share my work, which includes everything from new music to spiritual practices, to recordings of my talks and sermons. I also livestream a lot of different types of sacred gatherings.”

De Voil hopes his work on Patreon will ultimately grow enough to become his full-time job.

‘A NEW ME’

De Voil described his immigration to Jefferson County nearly 10 years ago as “a brand new chapter” in his life, as he started over in a new country with a new relationship, a new career and “a new me.”

“It was pitch dark and raining and I’d never set eyes on the place I was moving to,” de Voil said of his introduction to Marrowstone Island. “I had dreams of becoming a boat-building minister, even though no one, including me, really knew what that meant.”

Since de Voil came to the United States with little to no actual knowledge about either carpentry or boats, he was forced to rely upon any skill that could earn him a living in the meantime, including music.

“I started playing music at Undertown, the Ajax and anywhere else I could put out a tip jar and maybe get a tiny wage,” de Voil said. “It was winter, but I would wear fingerless gloves and busk outside the co-op. For the first time in my life, I was literally singing for my supper.”

It was during one such evening of busking outside the co-op when de Voil caught the attention of Aimée Ringle, who “just stopped in her tracks and started singing perfect harmonies. I realized this must be the amazing musician everyone had told me about. We sang together for five minutes, then I gave her one of my CDs and immediately invited her to go on tour with me in Scotland. And she said yes!”

Ringle accompanied de Voil and his wife on tour in 2012 “to all sorts of remote, unusual places you’d never normally find on a tour, everything from a tiny bakery in a one-street town to an ancient chapel in the Inner Hebrides.”

De Voil rarely tours anymore, having refocused his efforts on his online ministry, but he continues to credit the music that got him started with still being “at the heart” of what he does today.

Throughout his time here, one of de Voil’s greatest challenges has remained earning an income on which he can afford to live.

“Latterly, I’ve had about seven different jobs, and still only scraped by,” de Voil said. “Port Townsend is a very small town, and being a musical interfaith minister is quite a niche market. Over the years, I’ve had to push through my disappointment when people didn’t turn out for my gatherings, even when they were free, but in the end, I decided to keep on offering what I do, regardless of whether anyone showed up.”

More recently, de Voil has switched his focus to online offerings, which he described as “super-liberating,” because “it didn’t matter how many people turned up in person, since I could share the audio recording with folks online from all over the world, and they didn’t know there were only three people in the room chanting with me.”

De Voil has witnessed a significant transition to online attendance and participation with this pandemic, which has included “a huge surge of interest” in his own work over the past few months.

This is not to say de Voil doesn’t miss working with his hands, especially given that he counts his work with the students of the Community Boat Project among his proudest accomplishments in Jefferson County.

“Those kids hold a special place in my heart,” said de Voil, who has also been grateful for the opportunities he’s had here to hone his craft, both musically and “in what I share as a minister, even through the times that have been challenging and uncomfortable.”

Through the ministry he’s shared with his friend, the Rev. Pam Douglas Smith at Unity Church of Port Townsend, he’s been able to rethink the concept of a “church,” and respond “with compassion to all, in a rapidly changing world.”

“I’m even proud of my guitar that I had to rebuild after driving my truck over it!” de Voil said. “Now I’m leaving as an ordained interspiritual minister who knows how to build boats. I’ve recorded and produced three solo albums and learned a lot about building instruments and even microphones. I can’t believe how much has grown and changed in my life since I first arrived here a decade ago. It really feels like my career and music have come into fruition. And my beard has grown a lot, too!”

As a Scotsman, many things about America have surprised de Voil over the years.

“I remember cycling on Indian Island in my first year here, and seeing a black bear on the road,” de Voil said. “That was so outside my understanding of what was possible that at first, I really couldn’t understand what I was seeing, and I kept trying to convince myself it was a dog or a big cat.”

A more meaningful surprise for de Voil was what he called “the culture of generosity” he encountered here.

“Many times, people I scarcely know have approached me to offer whatever they can, whether that’s food, affordable rent or free medical care, all because they heard about my work and wanted me to keep on doing what I was doing,” de Voil said. “And of course, I was also delighted to find out how many wonderfully talented musicians there are in this small town. I was drawn to the area because of its boat-building initially, but I’ve stayed because it’s such an unusual and beautiful place to live.”

Unfortunately, sustainable living has remained enough of a struggle for de Voil and his wife they’ve had to look elsewhere for affordable housing.

“We’re two educated, professional and hard-working people, if I do say so myself, without children to support, so I think that really goes to show that employment and housing are real issues here,” de Voil said. “But we’re both very sad to go.”

De Voil lamented he wasn’t able to accomplish everything he’d had in mind over the years here. “But I got to try out many different things, from administering last rites to pets, to blessing boats, to preaching in the biggest church in town, and it’s been a wonderful ride,” de Voil said.

De Voil conducts his last service at Unity Church of Port Townsend, in person if possible, at 11 a.m. May 31, before he leaves for his new life.

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