Sonia Francis, advocate for church communication, dies at 61

October 22, 2003

Dr. Sonia Francis, whose career at the Episcopal Church Center spanned 37 years and the terms of four presiding bishops, died of heart failure at her home in New York on Oct. 16. She was 61.

She retired from her position as the presiding bishop's executive director of program in March after a leave of absence, during which time she was hospitalized and treated for multiple myeloma.

During a visit to Minneapolis for this summer's General Convention she was honored by her colleagues in Episcopal Communicators, the national association for church-based communications professionals, which she helped establish in 1971.

Her lengthy career at the church center began in 1966. After serving as a radio and television specialist, she was appointed executive of the communications office at the Church Center in 1983 and was instrumental in planning and launching Episcopal Life, the church's national newspaper, in 1989. In 1995 she was appointed director of program.

She remained involved in religious communication within the denomination, the Anglican Communion and wider ecumenical circles. In her work experience and study at the State University of New York, she specialized in documentary film and the emerging video technology.

With the National Council of Churches she served on various key committees, including broadcasting operations, and held positions with the World Association for Christian Communication, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the Religious Public Relations Council.

 

In 2000 Francis received an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Episcopal Divinity School in Massachusetts "for distinguished witness and service in church and society." The biography added, "Yours was a family where multiculturalism was normative." Francis was born in Honduras to Jamaicans with links to Cuba and Bengal. After graduating from an English-speaking boarding school in San Antonio, Texas, Francis served in the Women's Army Corps (WAC) from 1960-65. She was also a professional performing artist in voice, drama and dance.

 

"This diverse background has given you a unique ability to understand people from many different cultural backgrounds, and has helped you serve as a bridge-builder between persons and organizations in the church," the biography said.

 

Former colleague Kris Lee, now on the staff of the Anglican Communion Office, said that "Sonia was among the very first denominational communication executives in the early 80's to produce network radio and TV spot campaigns for evangelism and for social justice causes. She was also a striking media performer and I remember well that evening when she received a standing ovation for her singing tribute to Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning at his final General Convention. At the Episcopal Church Center, Sonia championed the need for collegial partnerships with other departments by creating a successful inter-unit working group for planning and evaluating communication projects."

 

Several former colleagues also pointed out the significance of her career in the life of others. Bishop Arthur Williams, interim director of ethnic ministries, said that she has been "an effective and persistent presence on the national church scene--and we will miss her warm and welcoming ways.

Over these years she has served as a wonderful role model for black women, in the church and in society."

 

At her retirement, Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold said in a note to staff and the Executive Council that "Sonia has been a valued friend and colleague to me and a true servant of the Gospel."

 

Funeral services will be held Saturday, October 25, at 12:00 p.m. at Calvary/St. George's Church, 209 East 16th Street in New York. A memorial service will also be held at the Episcopal Church Center on Thursday, October 30, 2003 at 3:00 p.m. In lieu of flowers, please make donations to Gilda's Club of NYC, 195 West Houston Street, NY, NY 10014, phone: 212-647-9700.