My Friend, the Reverend Katrina van Alstyne Swanson, one of the “Philadelphia Eleven”

‘All my life, my Lord has been telling me to respond this way.’” -The Reverend Katrina Swanson

The Washington Star-News, July 30, 1974: It could have been living theater. An overflow audience of 1,500 crowded around the principals, yipped and cheered during the speeches and hissed and booed the five men who wanted to stop the show. But it was a real life drama. At the closing, after a standing ovation, most of the audience went up on the platform to receive Holy Communion from among the 11 women who had just been ordained as priests of the Episcopal Church.

Yesterday at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia’s inner city, three bishops officiated at the ordination, defying a church policy which does not endorse the ordination of women.

The women, the bishops and many of the worshipers came from all of the country and from “lands beyond this land” to find sanctuary for what one of the objectors called “a renegade ordination.” It was an appropriate setting, in a church famed as a refuge of civil rights workers and dissidents such as the Black Panthers and Angela Davis.

The rector of the Church of the Advocate, the Rev. Paul M. Washington, compared the women’s precipitous action to that of giving birth. “What’s a mother to do when the doctor says her baby is due on Aug. 10, when on July 29, she feels the last stages of labor pains?” He was explaining the Episcopal Church’s slow but inexorable progression towards ordaining women.

Canon law neither denies nor opposes the right of women to become priests and a majority of churchmen have voted approval of ordaining women at past legislative assemblies. The bishops are hopeful final endorsement will come at the next convention in 1976. All three bishops, the 11 new priests and participants such as Father Washington and Bishop Antonio Ramos of Costa Rica, face disciplinary action as serious as deposition.

The women, all deacons of the church, include:

The Rev. Alison Cheek, 47, a deacon of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, pastoral counselor in Washington and a staff member of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Annandale, who said “I didn’t realize I would become a deacon and then be set aside like an offering plate.” She has been ordered not to perform as a priest until her case is reviewed, but has indicated that she will give Communion in the Washington area soon.

The Rev. Jeannette Ridlon Piccard, 79, widow of balloonist Jacques Ernest Jean Piccard, has been planning to become a priest for 50 years. “My bishop said my participation pained him greatly, said the Rev. Piccard, who is a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota.

The Rev. Katrina Swanson is the daughter of the Rt. Rev. Edward Randolph Welles II, retired bishop of West Missouri and a resident of Manset, Me. Her husband is the Rev. George Swanson, rector of St. George Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Mo. Both Swansons face disciplinary action when they return to Kansas City. Canon Donald E. Becker, vice president of the committee of the West Missouri Diocese, said the Committee will file a complaint against them.

The other women are the Rev. Marie Moorefield, 30 of New York; the Rev. Carter Heyward, 28, New York; the Rev. Betty Bone Schiess, 51, Syracuse, N.Y.; the Rev. Constantine Hatch Wittig, 28, Newark, N.J.; the Rev. Emily Hewitt, 30, New York; the Rev. Merrill Bittner, 27, Rochester, N.Y. and the Rev. Sister Alla Renee Bozarth-Campbell.

Besides Bishop Welles, the ordinations were performed by the Rt. Rev. Robert L. Dewitt, resigned bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and the Rt. Rev. Daniel Corrigan, a retired bishop.

Bishop Welles, under strong pressure from the Rt. Rev. John M. Allin, presiding bishop of the 3.3 million-member church, had just about decided not to participate in the ordination. But he changed his mind the night before, and in a loud, emotional voice, he ordained his daughter and three other women.

During the ordination, he presented his daughter with the scarlet chasuble his father had given him at his own ordination. He wore the mitre and ring that had belonged to his grandfather, a bishop.

The service began at 11 a.m. in the vaulted Church of the Advocate set like a jewel in a cheerless area of littered streets and paneless dwellings where the poor live.

People spilled out onto the sidewalks outside the church and milled around the procession of priests, male and female deacons, the women and the bishops. It was a tense, disorderly scene soon sorted out by the Rev. Washington who said in his quiet, forceful voice, “We shall never be the same after this day.”

This is the hour of truth,” echoed Dr. Charles V. Willie, vice-president of the church’s national House of Deputies and a Harvard professor. In his sermon, Willie pointed out “parallels between the Civil Rights movement and the Women’s Movement…as blacks refused to participate in their own oppression by going to the back of the bus in 1955 in Montgomery, women are refusing to cooperate in their own oppression by remaining on the periphery of full participation in the church in 1974 in Philadelphia.”

Willie asked, to tumultuous applause, “How long, how long, oh God, must a good woman wait?” Then the ordination began.

Memorial for Rev. Katrina Swanson

The ordination continued with growing solemnity. When Bishop Corrigan asked the other priests if they would like to come forward for the “laying on of the hands,” about 50 men responded, so many that they stood backed up into two aisles, their hands on the shoulders of the ones in front and on up to the altar where the 11 women were ordained with what they later described as “great support, greater than we expected.”

The long lines formed for the Communion, which the women served with gentle smiles and great dignity, moving gracefully up and down the steps of the altar as they went to receive the chalices from the bishops.

Nearly three hours had elapsed and the deed was done. Rev. Corrigan commented later, “Women offer a depth of compassion that the priesthood is sadly lacking where only administered by men.” And the Rt. Rev. Ramos, who assisted in the ordination at great risk to his career in the church, summed it up “The only way to challenge something that is unjust is to challenge it. The only way to do justice is to challenge injustice.”

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Judy Flander

Judy Flander

American Journalist. As a newspaper reporter in Washington, D.C., surreptitiously covered the 1970s’ Women’s Liberation Movement.