11/02/2012 10:42 am ET Updated Jan 02, 2013

Woman's Song: Female Spiritual and Religious Pioneers

Storytelling -- sharing our stories -- is one of the most important things we do. This is Beatrice's story. What is significant is her legacy of service to others. This began in 1918-19 when the U.S. influenza epidemic became a national tragedy.

Born in 1898, Beatrice was a young woman when she volunteered as a nursing assistant in the epidemic. Working on a Navajo reservation, she served as a schoolteacher and a nurse. Later Beatrice told me that when a child died during the night it was her responsibility to give it a quiet and immediate burial in an effort to allay fears of other students.

For her volunteer work she was later awarded a certificate by the U.S. Public Health Service "as an expression of appreciation for patriotic service voluntarily rendered." Shortly afterward, she was married. Beatrice was my mother. Always her life was marked by a strong element of service. I remember that over many years she volunteered as a teacher at the Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.

A familiar image was one of my mother hand laundering her white hospital uniform and neatly pressing it. Always she was very disciplined about her public service. Once a youngster at the hospital said to Beatrice "You're old, aren't you?" Beatrice allowed she was (she was in her 80s). "Good," he exclaimed. "Then I can talk to you."

I realize now that there are women like Beatrice doing acts of service all over the world. A spiritual kinship between them becomes a real part of their lives whether they live in California or India, Mexico or China, Sweden or Toronto. Two awards given Beatrice by the Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles carried great meaning for her. One was the Kate Page Crutcher Award in 1977. The other was the Mary Helm Memorial Award in 1982.

What was most unusual about Beatrice's life of service occurred when she became the parish secretary of an Episcopal parish in Los Angeles. There were no Episcopal women priests then. Beatrice was a lifelong faithful Episcopalian. The male priest with whom she worked was an excellent one in many ways. However, his strong suit was not personal counseling, especially with women parishioners.

Fortunately Beatrice loved doing it. More to the point, she seemed to have a natural propensity for it. Quite unselfconsciously she became a forerunner, along with a growing number of other women who likewise grew in spiritual grace and service. Soon women priests started emerging at national and local levels.

Beatrice retired from duties as a parish secretary in 1959. Intense emotion surrounded her departure. I remember a letter written to my mother from the women of the parish. It read:

"She has been our sounding board, our wailing wall, our fellow-sufferer when we were upset. And also our joint exulter when we were happy. She has often provided that 60 seconds of distance we needed when we were on the verge of rushing into some personal crusade in high dudgeon. She has provided a cooling period. And she has carried the ball for us when we became too timid or discouraged or worn down. We've all had experiences shared with Beatrice -- some laughed over or prayed over -- bringing us closer into the rare privilege of friendship with the finest person most of us will ever know."

Something spiritually remarkable is chronicled here. Like numerous other women in the church who played quiet leadership roles before women were ordained as priests, Beatrice became a forerunner of today's women priests and bishops. She was one of the pioneers who humbly and courageously prepared the way for deep, vast change in the very life of the church.

The stories of these women who faithfully made church history are now part of a vast spiritual legacy. I am enormously proud and grateful that Beatrice stands in their ranks. Beatrice died at age of 99.