Barefoot pastor a veteran of congeniality

It’s not unusual for the Rev. Peggy Bonsell to kick off her shoes while sitting in her office.

And it’s not unusual for her to be shoeless while preaching on Sunday morning at the Hollidaysburg Veterans Home where she’s the Protestant chaplain.

But when people describe the woman referred to as the barefoot pastor, they talk about her smile, her energy, her supportive nature and how she is a special person in their lives.

“There are some people who can tell by looking at them that they’re not friendly,” 79-year-old Army veteran Harold Riggleman of Pittsburgh said. “She’s not one of them.”

The 66-year-old pastor would be a top contender in a congeniality contest, as evidenced by the greetings she gets and gives to the residents and employees when she walk through halls of the Veterans Home.

When Bonsell walked into Riggleman’s room, he smiled.

“You can’t help but smile because she’s always cheerful,” he said.

Riggleman said he likes Bonsell’s religious services, her Bible study meetings and the pastoral counseling program she runs.

“I like people,” Bonsell said. “And God has given me the insight to understand them.”

“She’s good with the way she comes across to people,” said Air Force veteran Rick Mateljan of Johnstown, who lives at the Veterans Home. “I talk about everything with her, which I can’t do with everybody.”

Bonsell refers to her job at the Veterans Home as a gift. She held the post about eight years ago when she also pastored two churches. Almost three years ago, the United Methodist Church Conference assigned her to the home again and made it her sole responsibility.

“I do three services each Sunday morning and three Bible studies each Tuesday,” she said. “Plus, I have two additional groups that I formed with the men and women.”

Bonsell also makes time for one-on-one visits and efforts designed to brighten someone’s day. For a resident who treasured a wedding picture of his parents, she bought a frame. And for a resident who kept his parents’ ashes in a cigar box, she telephoned a local funeral director for help in obtaining an urn.

“I try to do little things for the residents that mean so much to them and take little time from me,” she said.

“She’s always there for the veterans,” activities assistant Randa Deshong said. “And she’s there for us too. She offered to sit with me while my dad had surgery. I think she’s just awesome.”

Activities Director Sandy Newfield said Bonsell makes impression on visitors, too.

“After a recent memorial service, one of the family members came up to me and said: “That lady preacher is just wonderful,” Newfield said.

Bonsell, who grew up in Tyrone and graduated from Tyrone Area High School in 1964, said she didn’t pursue ministry until she was 42.

“When I graduated from high school, the last thing I wanted to do was to go on to school,” she said.

But after working as a nurse’s aide and taking some secretarial classes, she enrolled at the Manahath School of Theology in Hollidaysburg at the urging of then-boyfriend Gary Bonsell, who became her husband. And after securing a bachelor’s degree in elementary education, she spent 12 years teaching fourth graders for the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese, initially at the SS. Peter & Paul School, then Cathedral School.

Bonsell said that she when she quit teaching, she had plans to return to college and take educational classes. But she changed those plans one night while at a funeral home.

“My husband and I were at the viewing of a good friend of ours,” she said, “when I kept saying I wish I could do something to help all the people that were in grief at the funeral home.”

She said the answer seemed clear: Do something about it.

“Before we returned home from the viewing, I made a commitment to go into the ministry and a peace came upon me like I never felt before,” she said. “I had no idea where to start, but I knew that God would direct me and he did.”

With support from her husband and two sons, Karl and Adam, she pursued five years of study at the Wesley School of Theology in Washington, D.C., then chaplain training at Geisinger Hospital in Danville. She accepted pastoral assignments at Fairview, First Church Altoona, Faith, Broad Avenue and Warriors Mark Methodist churches before her current chaplain assignment at the Veterans Home.

“For me, I don’t feel that I do anything special from what anyone else does,” Bonsell said. “But I know I am well blessed with my husband, sons and grandson, family and the residents at the VA Home to make me feel wonderful everyday.”

Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.