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Remembering The 'Philadelphia 11': Where The First Female, Episcopal Priests Are 40 Years Later

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Photo courtesy Episcopal Divinity School

WASHINGTON (RNS) On July 29, 1974, in Philadelphia, 11 women broke rank and were ordained as the first female priests in the Episcopal Church. They became known as the “Philadelphia Eleven.”

While there was no law explicitly prohibiting the ordination of women, there also was no law allowing it. After the Philadelphia protest at the Church of the Advocate, the 11 women were deemed “irregularly” ordained, and Episcopal bishops warned the church not to recognize the women as priests.

Two years later, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention — under pressure from the events in Philadelphia and elsewhere — affirmed and authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood. Today, the church is led by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to lead a national branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

In the 40 years since, the “Philadelphia Eleven” have gone on varied paths working in churches, at therapeutic horseback riding centers, retirement and more. Here’s what the “Philadelphia Eleven” are doing today:

Merrill Bittner
Born: 1948
After ordination: On April 15, 1976, she announced that she would “no longer affiliate myself with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.”

Alla Bozarth-Campbell
“We have these women who achieved these tremendous callings as bishops and our presiding bishop, in point of fact, but there is still sexism at the lower levels and the mid levels. It’s still difficult for woman deacons, woman priests to be placed and fully integrated into positions of authority and leadership.”
Born: 1947
After ordination: Founded Wisdom House, a Minneapolis-based interfaith spirituality center.
Now: Retired, writes poems as ministry.
Future: Continue as resident priest of Wisdom House, writing poetry and encouraging young people.
Advice for women in the church today: “If there are barriers and, yet, the women feel called to those areas which are still blocked to them in their traditions, I would encourage to do what the Roman Catholic women have been doing. And that is get together, pray together, pray for guidance together and follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it emerges.”

Alison Cheek
“I felt that if I didn’t go to that ordination I would lose my integrity and I wanted to do something for women. And the clergy was the logical place for me to start.”
Born: 1927
After ordination: Served in St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Annandale, Va.
Now: Retired.
Future: “Wherever the spirit leads.”
Advice for women in the church today: “The advice I used to give women back at the time was, only get ordained if you can’t help it and if you want to change the church. And I think that still holds, I think it still isn’t always easy for woman priests.”

Emily Hewitt
“If I had a call, the call was to a fight. Someone upstairs had decided that we need to get some people here willing to fight about this stuff and I eventually developed a voice on this subject.”
Born: May 26, 1944
After ordination: Assistant professor of religion and education at Andover Newton Theological School (1973–1975).
Now: Retired from chief judge of the United States Court of Federal Claims, October 2013.
Future: Volunteer as a judge, travel and spend time with her spouse.
Advice for women in the church today: “From the point of view of the church, I cheer on the women, without whom the church, living as long as it is, would barely be able to go on. I mean this is a lot of the muscle of the church.”

Carter Heyward
“Well, we were really quite privileged to be able to take that step. Somebody had to take it and it was our time, I guess. We came along and we were ready in every way other than the fact that the church wasn’t ready, but we were.”
Born: 1945
After ordination: Faculty at the Episcopal Divinity School.
Now: Retired in 2005, helps run and teach at a therapeutic horseback center.
Future: Heyward plans to continue her therapy work.
Advice for women in the church today: “Stay aware of ways in which the church does and does not empower women to be fully who they are. And to really work to celebrate for the things that have happened on our behalf and really fight for the changes that are needed. And, also, to keep connection with other people who are struggling for justice.”

Suzanne Hiatt
Born: 1937
After ordination: Faculty of the Episcopal Divinity School until retirement.
Now: Died May 30, 2002.

Marie Moorefield
Born: 1944
After ordination:Chaplain at the United Methodist Retirement Home in Topeka, Kan. (1973–1975).
She returned to the Episcopal Church in the 1980s.

Jeannette Piccard
Born: Jan. 5, 1895
Before ordination: She was a balloonist. With her husband, she piloted a balloon into the stratosphere on Oct. 23, 1934. This made her the first woman in the stratosphere.
After ordination: Served in St. Paul, Minn., until 1981.
Now: Died May 17, 1981.

Betty Bone Schiess
“My goal was not to be a priest, it was to change the church.”
Born: April 2, 1923
After ordination: Chaplain at Syracuse University from 1976–1978.
Now: Retired, “sitting here at 91 with my 93-year-old husband, enjoying life.”
Future: Writing a letter to her childhood church in Cincinnati about social issues, including the environment.
Advice for women in the church today: “I would certainly endorse what is already being endorsed, that is to have women be in the public arena. Because what happens in the law of the country and every place else affects women, so they should have a say in what happens.”

Katrina Swanson
Born: 1935
After ordination: Worked at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in St. Louis.
Now: Died Aug. 27, 2005

Nancy Wittig
“It has confirmed the fact that opening up the priesthood to women was very important.”
Born: 1945
After ordination: Supply work for Episcopal Diocese of Newark.
Now: Retired, part-time job at St. Peter Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Ohio.
Future: “Grow old gracefully.”
Advice for women in the church today: “Don’t assume there’s no prejudice about women. Don’t assume just because you’re very smart and have a good education that will pave the way. There will be a lot of bumps along the way. But don’t give up, stay faithful, show up and remember it’s not your ministry, it’s Christ’s.”

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