Feast of the Pioneering Female Episcopal Priests, 1974 and 1975 (July 28)   6 comments

Above:  The Eight Surviving Members of the Philadelphia Eleven


In 1974 and 1975 fifteen women shattered the stained-glass ceiling and forced a morally correct change in the ordination policies of The Episcopal Church.


Within the past three years I heard the following anecdote:  Someone asked a young Roman Catholic female how many sacraments there are.  She answered,

That depends on whether you are a boy or a girl.

I am glad to report that Episcopalians have equal access to all seven sacraments without regard to their XX or XY chromosomes.

Prior to 1970 women could not serve as delegates to the General Convention of The Episcopal Church.  That year the denomination redefined Deaconesses as ordained members of the Sacred Order of Deacons.  Three years later the General Convention almost opened the priesthood and the episcopate to women, except for a parliamentary procedure.

On July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, three bishops conducted eleven “irregular” ordinations.  These were “irregular” because the ordinands were women (all deacons, by the way) who lacked the recommendations of their bishops and diocesan standing committees for ordination.  These eleven women became the first female Episcopal Priests, the “Philadelphia Eleven.”

The three bishops were Daniel Corrigan (retired from the Diocese of Colorado), Robert L. DeWitt (resigned from the Diocese of Pennsylvania), and Edward R. Welles II (retired from the Diocese of West Missouri).  These men, who had devoted many years of their careers to social justice, considered the ordination of women consistent with this inclination.  Welles, for example, had supported the ordination of women since at least 1928.  A fourth bishop, Jose Antonio Ramos, diocesan of Costa Rica, was present and supportive, yet did not ordain anyone.

The Philadelphia Eleven were:

  1. Merrill Bittner
  2. Alison Cheek
  3. Alla Bozarth-Campbell
  4. Emily C. Hewitt
  5. Carter Heyward
  6. Suzanne R. Hiatt (died in 2002)
  7. Marie Moorefield (Fleischner from 1980)
  8. Jeannette Piccard (died in 1981)
  9. Betty Bone Schiess
  10. Katrina Welles Swanson (died in 2006)
  11. Nancy Hatch Witting

Laywoman Barbara Clementine Harris (later the first female bishop, in 1989) participated in the service.  And Professor Charles V. Willie of Harvard University, delivering the sermon, likened that day’s events to African Americans refusing to sit at the back of the bus anymore.   (It was an accurate analogy.)

Prior to the service Presiding Bishop John Maury Allin, who opposed the ordination of women, asked the 79-year-old Jeannette Piccard, a widow and former aviatrix, not to go through with the rite.  Speaking as perhaps only a grandmother could, she replied,

Sonny, I’m old enough to have changed your nappies.

Two weeks after the Philadelphia service, at an emergency meeting at O’Hare International Airport, the House of Bishops (by a vote of 129 to 9, with 8 abstentions) declared these ordinations invalid.

Two priests, Peter Beebe (of the Diocese of Ohio) and William Wendt (of the Diocese of Washington) permitted some of the Philadelphia Eleven to function as priests in their parishes.  For this these men faced disciplinary actions in their dioceses.

Then, on September 7, 1975, at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, D.C. (William Wendt’s parish), George W. Barrett,, retired Bishop of Rochester, ordained the Washington Four.  They were:

  1. Alison Palmer
  2. Eleanor “Lee” McGee
  3. Elizabeth “Betty” Rosenberg (Powell)
  4. Diane Tickell

Presiding Bishop John Maury Allin, who opposed the ordination of women, asked that bishops involved in “irregular” ordinations face no church judicial consequences.  So the House of Bishops censured these men and “decried” Bishop Barrett’s actions.

The 1976 General Convention approved the ordination of women as priests and bishops.  The following year, the Church accepted the fifteen “irregularly” ordained female priests.

In 1977 many church conservatives, opposing various Episcopal reforms, including the draft proposed 1976 Prayer Book (better known afterward as the 1979 Book of Common Prayer) and the ordination of women, gathered at St. Louis.  Out of this congress came the Anglican Church of North America (distinct from the newer Anglican Church in North America).  The 1978 ACNA broke up over the next few years, with the Province of Christ the King going its way in 1978, the Diocese of the Southeast departing in 1979, the United Episcopal Church of North America leaving in 1980, and the Diocese of the Southwest breaking away in 1982. The remnant calls itself the Anglican Catholic Church.

(Note: The best book on the subject of breakaway Episcopalians is Divided We Stand: A History of the Continuing Anglican Movement, by Douglas Bess, a priest of one of those communions.  The Tractarian Press of Riverside, California, publishes this volume.  My critique is this:

  1. Bess has done extensive research.
  2. An index would be nice.
  3. A list of abbreviations would help, too.
  4. An excellent proofreader would be a good idea.
  5. His writing is clear.

And what happened to the fifteen pioneering female priests?

  1. Most of them served in parishes and/or as chaplains.
  2. Carter Heyward and Suzanne R. Hiatt began teaching at Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1975.  Heyward retired in 2006.  Hiatt retired in 1998 and died in 2002.  In 2004 EDS made the first appointment to the Suzanne R. Hiatt Professorship in Feminist Pastoral Theology and Church History.
  3. Emily C. Hewitt, Assistant Professor of Religion and Education at Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Massachusetts, graduated with honors from Harvard Law School in 1978.  From 1978 to 1993 she practiced law at the Hill and Barlow firm, Boston.  Then she became General Counsel to the U.S. General Services Administration, leaving that post in 1998 to become a judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.  In 2009 she became Chief Judge of that court.
  4. Eleanor McGee retired as Professor of Pastoral Counseling at Yale Divinity School in 2006.
  5. As a girl Katrina Welles knew she had a vocation to the priesthood.  Decades later, at Philadelphia, in 1974, her father was one of the bishops ordaining the first female priests.  By then she was Katrina Welles Swanson, wife of Father George Swanson, an Episcopal priest.  As a priest Katrina insisted that her parishioners call her by her first name.  The Apostles did not have fancy titles, she said, so why should she?  She died in 2006, survived by her husband, children, and brother.

Today women do not sit at the back of the proverbial church bus.  We (as a body) should never have made them sit back there.

The ordination of women has always been a given in my mind.  Growing up as a United Methodist “PK” in the South Georgia Annual Conference, I encountered female clergy and thought nothing of it.  The fact that people debate the issue strikes me as being ridiculous.

Yet I recall an example from 1989.   My father had received an appointment to another two churches, the Alapaha and Glory congregations in Berrien County.  His successor at the Berlin-Wesley Chapel Charge in Colquitt County was to be a woman.  Most opposition to her came from frustrated housewives, not men.  Luanne became a beloved pastor of those two churches.


Lord Jesus Christ, in whom there in no longer male or female,

Jew or Gentile, slave or free person:

We thank you for the pioneering female Episcopal priests of 1974 and 1975.

May their examples of faithfulness and their overcoming of difficulties encourage all

who encounter discrimination and open the eyes of all who

perpetuate or support discrimination in your Church.

In the name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Galatians 3:19-29

Psalm 84

Matthew 27:55-61, 28:1-10


MARCH 4, 2010 



Modified on July 28, 2017 Common Era



In 2015 the General Convention of The Episcopal Church approved a revised calendar of saints, published the following year as A Great Cloud of Witnesses:  A Calendar of Commemorations.

In that volume one finds a new commemoration germane to this post.  That feast is for the “First Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in The Episcopal Church, 1974,” set at July 29.  The Rite II collect for the occasion follows:

O God, you poured your Spirit from on high to bless and summon these women,

who heard the strength of your call:  Equip, guide, and inspire us with

wisdom, boldness, and faith to trust you in all circumstances,

hear you preach new life to your Church, and stretch out our hands to serve you,

as you created us and redeemed us in the name of Jesus Christ,

who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, everlasting.  Amen.


July 28, 2017


6 responses to “Feast of the Pioneering Female Episcopal Priests, 1974 and 1975 (July 28)

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  1. Diane Tickell of the Diocese of Alaska has also died.

  2. Pingback: Feast of James Montgomery (April 30) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  3. Pingback: Feast of John Hines (July 19) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  4. Pingback: Feast of Cynthia Clark Wedel (August 23) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  5. Pingback: Feast of Theodore O. Wedel and Cynthia Clark Wedel (August 23) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

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