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Thursday, October 18, 2007

Vocation: Embarrassment

I was ordained on the Feast of St. Luke, October 18, 1986, in The Episcopal Church of St. Ann, Lowell, MA, "The Mill Girl Church."

I am the daughter of a Fall River Mill Girl and granddaughter of a woman who was part of the first wave of Portuguese immigrants to come to this country via Boston to be a domestic for the Beacon Hill elite.

My paternal grandparents were poor farmers from the Azores. My maternal grandfather was a Portuguese fisherman and sailor. My maternal grandmother was the seventh child and only daughter of poor farmers in a small village outside of Lisbon who came to this country - alone - after her mother died when she was 13 years old.

All of my aunts and uncles worked in the textile mills of Fall River. One of my uncles died at the age of 21, leaving a wife and a young son, in an explosion in one of the mills, which were notoriously unsafe. Because of that horrific and tragic loss, all of my aunts and uncles were involved, in one manner or another, in labor union organizing.

I have 'feisty' and 'justice' and 'independence' encoded in my DNA.

The Rt. Rev'd Frederick Barton Wolf, then recently retired bishop of Maine (now gone on to glory), ordained me for Bishop Chalfante, who "allowed" my ordination but would not ordain me himself because he said, "the church has not spoken clearly on this issue."

To which a member of The Cathedral of St. Luke in Portland and my sponsoring congregation responded, "Bishop, with all due respect, Elizabeth is not an 'issue', she is a person we have been deeply persuaded is called by God to be a priest in the church."

The bishop then demurred, adding, "I just fear she will be an embarrassment to the church." As some of you may know, those words would come back to personally haunt him with a most desperate irony.

Ms. Conroy and I recently marked 31 years of faithful, monogamous partnered life, sharing the joys and responsibilities of six children and four grandchildren. We live in the serious suburbs where we mow the lawn, rake the leaves, pay taxes and try to help our neighbors.

We contribute to our community and serve the church in a variety of ways - Ms. Conroy as a volunteer EMT, Parish Nurse, and member of the Outreach Committee and Parish Choir. I serve as rector of a parish, president of the Standing Committee, member of the Women's Commission and president of the Episcopal Women's Caucus, in addition to being a member of the Steering Committee of Claiming The Blessing.

I have tried very hard not to be an embarrassment to the church. I fear the church has not returned the favor.

When the church has "erred and strayed" from the gospel, I have called her to repent and return. I have done that boldly and with great confidence that Jesus would have me do nothing less. Indeed, I have come to understand that part of my vocation is to ask the uncomfortable questions, and raise the disturbing issues.

I try to speak the truth as I know it in love, with as much clarity and authenticity I have in my body and soul. This means that I have been an annoyance to some and an embarrassment to others. In those moments, some have told me that they wish I could be 'nicer', reminding me that sugar attracts more flies than vinegar.

Well, I ask, what is a body to do when one has set out the sugar but notes that all it has accomplished is to draw flies? Or, that the lumps of sugar are now being used as weapons, and that all of this thwarts the progress of the work of the gospel?

Nice? Okay. I can be nice, and I am, most of the time. After all, I am an Anglican. I know how to behave in social settings. I even know appropriate table etiquette in the most formal of occasions.

But, give me real. As Harvey Guthrie, then Dean of the Episcopal Divinity School, said to me at the start of my admission interview, "We don't have much time. You have important questions to ask about how this school will support you in your vocational aspirations and goals. I have important questions to ask you about how your diocese and your bishop - who has, since 1974, refused to send seminarians here - will support you in your vocation. The world is too dark and broken a place for us to play polite games with each other. So, let's get on with it, shall we?"

Give me truth and honesty, integrity and authenticity. Even when we don't understand. Even when we fundamentally disagree. Even when that makes you so angry with me you want to throttle me - but instead, you slip right into all of your unfinished business with your family of origin. (I only know this because I am capable of it, too.)

To those deeply invested in 'nice', I suppose I have been and, indeed, am an embarrassment. I recently found myself writing these words to a friend: "Self-differentiation. It's the only cross worth carrying." She remarked that this would make a GREAT T-shirt. I do believe she's right.

So, you'll understand, then, why this poem written by Louie Crew and sent to me by him this morning touched my heart.

Before you read it, I want to tell you what my day, this day of 21st anniversary of ordination to the priesthood will be like: I am headed into the office where I will begin to implement the actions of last night's Vestry meeting, which include putting a new roof on the church and replacing all of the windows in the undercroft (where all of the church offices and nursery school are located).

Then, I will have lunch with an ordained woman who has been very badly treated by the church. She is looking for new work, in a new diocese, but I'm going just to be an old friend - to remind her of how talented and skilled, experienced and wise she is and how God desperately needs her in the church.

I will spend the better part of the afternoon in prayer for a dear friend who was in a motorcycle accident two Sundays ago and sustained serious head injuries. He has been on life support for almost two weeks. He turned 57 years old on Tuesday and, on that same day, the doctors noted that his EEG showed "very little brain activity." They and his family and partner, a retired priest and a very dear friend, made the decision that if today's EEG does not show any improvement, he will be removed from all life support and his body allowed to take its natural course.

Pray for Donald.

I will be home in the early evening where, after a quick supper with Ms. Conroy who will run out to Evening Prayer and choir rehearsal, I will put the finishing touches on the sermon I am preparing for a dear friend who is celebrating a new ministry begun in Michigan. I'll leave on Friday and be home late Saturday night to prepare for the two sermons I will preach and two Eucharists it will be my privilege to preside on Sunday.

Embarrassing? Okay. I have a different word for it: Vocation.

If I weren't called to do this work, I'd never be able to pull it off - that and all of the folks who will "just drop by" or "just call to say hello" and I will suddenly find myself with the enormous privilege of listening to the secrets held deep in their hearts.

Here are Louie's words - his anniversary gift to me which I joyfully share with you.

Let Us Now Praise Caustic Christians

Let us now praise caustic Christians,
the champions of justice in all generations,
through whom God has restored the flow of mercy.

Some have nailed theses to the church door
with prophetic power.
Some have started new universities to
challenge the prevailing notions.
Some have overturned tables at the temple,
demanding alms for the poor, the sick,
and the destitute before we buy organs
and stained glass.
Some have worn dresses to be priested for gender justice.
Some have yanked off masks to proclaim their loving gay unions.
Some have demanded of the white authorities, "Let My People Go!"
Some have marched through tear gas and police dogs,
defying orders from prelates and judges.
Some have destroyed draft files
and burned plans for nuclear destruction.
Some have organized unions and cooperatives.
Some have fought to redistribute God's bounty justly.

All these won notoriety in their own generation
and were the scandal of their times.
Many have sat in jails rather than to recant
or to say that the earth as we know it
is at the center of the universe.
Others have died.

Many there are who have left behind them no name,
but a legacy of hope restored, conflict resolved,
injustice rectified, lives redeemed.
Their victories are the inheritance of future generations.
Their line will endure for all times.

-- Louie Crew, 1982

Ernest & I rejoice in the anniversary of your ordination. May God use your ministry to bring joy to absolutely everybody!


klady said...

I not only rejoice with others on this occasion of your ordination anniversary but also thank you for writing this wonderful piece. It expresses so well what I most admire about you and would not have been able to put into words myself. I believe the church (and humankind in general) needs courageous voices and actions of all kinds, loud and quiet, strident and gentle, but especially those who insist upon "telling it like it is" with whatever voice or actions they find to express it. God help us all to be, work, love and live as the persons God made us and called us to be. Thanks again for your words, your ministry, and well, just you.

Have a blessed and joyful day, and prayers for Donald and all others in need.


Bill said...

Dear Elizabeth, Congradulations, hugs and kisses.

Jim said...


A church that can see its leaders defend B033 needs to be embarrassed early and often. But not by your courage, honesty and leadership. Jesus said he brought not peace but a sword. You minister on the edge of the sword, where God's warriors properly must be.

With fond respect:


Unknown said...

Elizabeth -

I remember well your priesting - especially when it turned out that the building alarm system didn't understand incense, so that there was the unexpected attendance of the fire brigade...
No harm done, and it added a smile to a joyful occasion.

For some reason, when I see your name around the net, my mind often flashes on a mental snapshot of an ordinary Sunday where I was the acolyte holding the Book as you proclaimed the Gospel there in the middle of the aisle at St John's Bowdoin Street.

cheers from Boston - Joan

ps - signed in under spouse id, so if you should need to contact me to verify for moderation, the hotmail name is rasch_j

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Elizabeth--it is because of people like you that I can stay in this church that has disappointed me so badly.

So bless you for your work, your witness, and your willingness to speak out. May you enjoy many more anniversaries, and may those future celebrations take place in a church that brings the Kingdom of God ever closer by its radical proclamation of God's love for ALL of us.


Muthah+ said...

21st, huh? It seems such a short time ago. But I love your embarrasment. I love your caustic. I love the way that you love people honestly, self-diferentiatedly, without phoniness. Thanks for being my friend. And may God continue to bless you in all that you are and do.



June Butler said...

Elizabeth, congratulations! 21 years! That's a long time. I pray you have many more blessed years serving God and your brothers and sisters.

What a lovely post. It's plain that you take joy in your ministry. Thanks be to God.

tedm said...

Congratulations, Elizabeth, from a fellow Fall Riverite (the last in my family to work in the mills) and one-time member of St. John's Bowdoin Street.

Vida Scudder, when asked if the Episcopal Church was a progressive institution replied that it was not. It was a thoroughly bougeois institution that occasionally had moments of compunction. 90 years later not much has changed, I guess. Our job is to keep on taking advantage of those moments whenever we can.

All the best,


Manny Publius said...

Reality: COURAGE

Thank you for sharing your experience, strength and hope. I know many who place great emphasis on the need of people to do that one for the other.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ted M and Joan R,

I will always and forever consider myself a missioner and evangelist of the Mission Church of St. John the Evangelist, Bowdoin St., Boston.

Whatever I know about Eucharistic Theology, I learned from Ted M.

The highest praise I have ever gotten was from Ted who said, "You are the best Deacon St. John's has ever had."

The sternest critique I have ever heard was from the self-same Ted who said, on The Great Vigil of Easter when there were no candidates for Baptism, "We can not fully celebrate this night because we have not brought new souls to Jesus. We have failed. We need to humbly confess that before we dare to fully celebrate the real meaning of this Most Holy Night."

I've never forgotten those words. Indeed, as my seminarians will attest, I have repeated them on the one night in five years since I've instituted The Great Vigil of Easter at St. Paul's when we did not have a baptism.

Thank you, Joan. Thank you, Ted. You have shaped and formed me for this ministry. I will forever be in your debt.

Allie said...

Thank you for your ministry and for being an inspiration to many.

Jan said...

It is wonderful to read about you. Blessings and joy on this anniversary of your ordination! Even more to celebrate is the length of your partnership (which I would call "marriage"). I wish my gay daughter could talk to someone like you, as she has totally rejected Christianity for its judgmentalism towards homosexuality (and other issues). Thank you.

Aghaveagh said...

Congrats on your 21st, and may there be twice twenty-one more!

KJ said...


Peace, blessing and joy on the journey of vocation. How does one not do what one HAS to do?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


The word 'misery' was coined as a descriptive of that state.

Fr. John said...

Dear Elizabeth,

God bless you on this and every day for all the gifts you have shared with this Church, whether we deserved it or not.

More love,


Rev Dr Mom said...

Congratulations on your ordination anniversary, and thank your for your ministry and witness to the church and the world.

Alcibiades said...

Blessings be with you, and thanks be to God for your life and faith.
You are an inspiration around the world, even to people you've never met living in a country you may well have never seen - yet Priests like you remind us there is a country to which we all belong, and of which we must never lose sight.

Thank you for keeping our courage firm.

Anonymous said...

Dear Elizabeth,

Those words above by Alcibiades: I wish I had said them first, for they describe exactly how I feel!

How fortuitous the timing of the Mass setting. I had no idea how appropriate it would be at this time in your ministry. Somebody did!

God bless you. I'm so looking forward to us meeting one day.

MarkBrunson said...

Well done, Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Do yourself a favor. Get your own Blog and post your lenghty drivel there.

You may be articulate but you are no where even near logical or reasonable.

In case you hadn't guessed: I won't be postsing your messages here.

Oh, and DanFarrell? While you're out looking for your own blog, get yourself a life of your own.

God Bless and have a great day.

Luiz Coelho said...

Elizabeth, I hope you ever read this.

FIrst of all, congratulations for one more year of ministry. May God bless you and enrich your inner congregation (family) and outer congregation ( Church) more and more.

What struck me hard when I read your post was the incredible similarity between our stories of life. Let me say that since the beginning I wondered if you had Portuguese relatives, because I have an aunt that looks just like you.

My paternal grandparents and great-grandparents were from the Azores (Terceira Island) and emigrated to the US, first living in New England and then ended up in Utah, from where my grandfather came to Brazil during the Depression, with his family, since the rest of our relatives was here. They were marranos, or new Christians, like 1/3 of the Azoreans, who went populate the islands fleeing from the Inquisition. My father still retained some Jewish customs.

My mother's family came from TrĂ¡s-os-Montes, Portugal's poorest region, and were miserable farmers there. They settled in a small town where everybody was related, and after my great-grandfathers death, my grandmother was given to relatives and forced to marry my grandfather, her cousin, at the age of 13. They came then to Rio and worked at a textile mill - all my near relatives, for years. My grandmother's brother died when one machine cut his neck. My grandfather got tuberculosis and my grandmother had to work alone at the same factory to raise her two daughters and take care of her husband... Labor rights were approved in 1937 but they weren't respected in many places. It was common for her to work 12 hours a day.

My grandmother is now 88 and considerably well. She still enjoys cooking bacalhau and all sorts of traditional Portuguese desserts...

Sometimes I wonder about all those coincidences.

Blessings to you.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...


Bacalhau! Oh, my goodness! I can't even remember how many years its been since I've had bacalhau! I can still smell it cooking in my Va Voa's kitchen.

Of course, my Va Vo also had his own oven in the garage where he would cook his own. My favorite was when he and my uncles would go fishing for 'smelts' (I believe they are baby macrel) off of East Cuttyhunk - an island off New Bedford which was highly favored by the Portuguese and Azoreans who lived in the Fall River-New Bedford area.

He would fry up the 'smelts' in a large caste iron skillet. I can't spell it correctly, so I'll spell it phoenitically: "cuvalenias mudienias." He would fry them up whole, heads and tails on and bones in (remarking that eating fish brains would make us smart), until they were crisp.

We would take my Va Voa's freshly baked Portuguese bread, hard and crusty on the outside and soft and doughy on the inside, and slather it with sweet creamery butter (home made, of course) and then put a crispy fish into the center of it like a sandwitch.

The trick was to eat it before the butter melted down your elbow.

Oh, Lord! He would set the skillet down in the middle of the table, alongside my grandmother's bread and butter, and we would sit on the picnic table outside under the grape vines from which he made wine.

I learned later that we were considered 'poor immigrants.'