An unusual job leads to new adventures

From NY to Mallorca, Spain, Elisa Stokka’s position as a priest takes her around the world

Photo: Pernille Gilje
Elisa Stokka has been a student priest at New York’s Norwegian Seamen’s Church for five years and now moves on to Spain.

Pernille Gilje
Adelphi University

A Norwegian student in the U.S. approached former Student Priest Elisa Stokka at a bar. What the student said to Stokka is something she still remembers.

“I haven’t had the need for you, but knowing I can contact you if something happens has made a huge difference,” the student said.

After five years in New York as a student priest in The Norwegian Seamen’s Church, Elisa Stokka, 52, will begin her new job as the Daily Leader with the church on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Her new position will have her serve as the head of the church, by administering weddings and having her preach every Sunday.

The history of Stokka and the Seamen’s Church goes back to 2011 when Stokka saw a flyer for the open position as a student priest. After working with students in Oslo for almost a decade, having the experience working for the church as a secretary for years, and having been an exchange student in the U.S. herself, Stokka realized that this was the perfect opportunity for her.

“My immediate thought was: ‘I have been to the U.S., I have myself loved to study there, and I love working with students,’” Stokka said.

The history of the Seamen’s Church dates back to 1864. Sailors who were abroad wanted to create a community for Norwegians to come together. The need for someone to talk to and for seamen to keep in touch with the Norwegian Church was the foundation on which the Seamen’s Church was founded.

Today, the non-profit organization is a focal point for Norwegians that spreads over all the seven continents and has 29 locations in 17 different countries. Its New York church is located in the heart of Midtown East. Nowadays, the church increasingly serves mostly students and tourists rather than sailors. Approximately 3,000 to 4,000 Norwegians annually study abroad in the U.S., and for the past five years it has been Stokka’s job to take care of them.

Born into a Christian family in Stavanger, Norway, Stokka’s life has revolved around the church. It has always been a safe place to her. “As a child, I was running around feeling that the church was my home,” Stokka said.

Stokka was encouraged by family and friends to be a pastor. However, it took time for her to see it herself. “I was scared of being that type of leader,” she said. “The pastors I had met were men. I was also scared about the attention and conflicts it would bring to be a pastor.”

At the age of 23, Stokka experienced her calling. She went with a friend to a Christian gathering where a woman was preaching. This was outside of the norm of what Stokka was used to.

“There was something about what she said that just hit me and I felt that she was speaking to me,” Stokka said. She looked over to her friend and told her, “I am going to be a pastor.”

“To hear a woman preaching and to see her do it; since then, I knew that this was my path,” Stokka said.

Stokka started her studies towards her pastor certificate and in 1991 she graduated from The Norwegian School of Theology. During her studies there she was offered an exchange grant to Wartburg Technological Seminary in Iowa in 1990-91. More recently she was certified at level III of Sensorimotor Psychotherapy the fall of 2016. Besides having her pastor certificate, she has also been certified as a counselor, which has been a great benefit to her work as a pastor.

Counseling is a big part of Stokka’s job and a crucial part of the security net that is being offered for Norwegian students abroad.

Adelphi University senior Hannah Berggren has been a frequent user of what Stokka and the Seamen’s Church offers since she moved from Norway. At the Seamen’s Church there are social events and gatherings for students abroad and Stokka has provided support and comfort through counseling.

“Elisa is in possession of such a big and loving heart,” Berggren says. “She goes above and beyond what her job description entails to ensure we are in a good state of mind and happy.”

With the position as a student priest, Stokka has been responsible for students in Canada and Mexico along with the ones in the U.S. The job has made her busy traveling 120 days a year.

She has traveled to let students know they have someone to talk to, gathered Norwegian students serving waffles, and met with them individually for counseling. Stokka explains that most of the students are unfamiliar with Christianity and most of them come to talk about what they find difficult in their lives.

While working for the Seamen’s Church, priests are stationed at one of their churches for five years. When moving to Mallorca her position will change. Her life will be more stable, and she will be able to preach every Sunday, prepare more weddings, and still serve waffles to the Norwegians that stop by. Stokka is excited about this new opportunity in her career.

“Being a priest is a great opportunity to do different things and face new challenges. You can still do your job, but in different settings—having it shift like that is something I really appreciate,” Stokka said.

However, back in New York, her work will be missed.

“When Elisa leaves an important member of the staff at the church will be missed,” pastor colleague Ellen Marie Skillingstad said. “I will miss her laughter, her enthusiasm, and engagement towards the student activities.”

“It is safe to say that ‘my New York’ will be missing someone very special, and I can only hope she will one day be able to return,” Berggren said.

Stokka doesn’t know what to expect; however, she is excited about what lies ahead.

“I have never been a daily leader before, but I have always liked a challenge,” Stokka said.

Pernille Aubert Gilje is a junior studying for her bachelor’s degree in Communications at Adelphi University located at Long Island, N.Y. After graduating in May 2018, she’s planning to move back home to Norway for her master’s, hoping one day to become a journalist.

This article is an updated version of the article originally published in the April 7, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.