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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Shout the Gospel With Your Life: Celebrating 35 years of the Rev’d Dr Ellen (Sr. Bernadette) Barrett

The Rev'd Dr. Ellen Barrett
Last month, in "Holy Women, Holy Men," the proposed new liturgical calendar of saints gave us the opportunity to learn about Charles de Foucauld, a Trappist monk who had a “ministry of presence” among “the furthest removed, the most abandoned” in the Sahara Desert.

He saw the purpose of his work not to proselytize or to convert people whose faith and culture differed from his, but to “shout the gospel” with his life.

Agnes de Mille once wrote: "No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently."

Trumpets may not have sounded on the morning of January 10, 1977 when Ellen M. Barrett was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Paul Moore in the Episcopal Diocese of New York, but the headline in the above-the-fold section of the front page of the New York Times that morning blared, “Lesbian Woman to be Ordained Priest.”

That headline was, at the time, more of a scandal than V. Gene Robinson’s election and consecration as the first openly gay male bishop. The Episcopal Church was certainly no stranger to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell". Everybody knew somebody who was a "Father Wink-Wink".

Barrett was not only a woman and a lesbian, she was self-affirming. About being both.

Remember: The year was 1977.

Let me put this into some historical context for you.

The Stonewall Riots happened in June of 1969.  The 'Lavender Revolution' was less than 10 years old.

The Equal Rights Amendment passed the U.S. Senate and then the House of Representatives in 1972 and was sent to the states for ratification.

In 1973, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church voted - again - to reject the issue of the ordination of women.

On July 29, 1974, eleven women were "irregularly ordained" to the priesthood at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia,  PA.

In September of 1975, four more women were "irregularly ordained" to the priesthood at St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington, DC.

In 1975, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC) passed enabling legislation for women priests (the first six women priests in the ACC were ordained in November 1976).

In 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate. At the same time, the previous ordinations were regularized.

The first regular ordination occurred on 1 January 1977, when Jacqueline Means was ordained at the Episcopal Church of All Saints, Indianapolis.

In the month of January, 1977, no less than forty-one women were ordained to the priesthood.

As 1977 drew to a close, over 100 women had been ordained priests in The Episcopal Church.

A new day was dawning in The Episcopal Church and for many of “God’s frozen chosen,” it was a rude awakening.

Some churches flew the Episcopal flag at half-staff or upside-down. Some rectors and their congregations left – or threatened to leave – The Episcopal Church.

The “Chicken Little School of Theology” was on high alert, certain that the sky was falling and this would be THE END of The Episcopal Church many had known all their lives and loved with all their hearts.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

While The Episcopal Church has certainly – thanks be to God - changed over the last thirty-five years, I believe history will reveal that what happened on January 10, 1977 to be one of the more significant and transformative events in the life of our church.

It may disprove, at least equivocally, Ms. de Mille’s statement, “Destiny is made known silently.”

One of the silent fears at the time was that opening ordination to women – besides making unification with Rome that much more difficult even more impossible – was that the only women who would seek ordination to the priesthood were women who "really wanted to be men". Read: lesbians.

Never mind that, every time I put on an alb - a long white dress - to preside at Eucharist, I'm dressing in traditional, ancient male garb. She may not have invented it, but it would seem that Mother Church is no stranger to "drag". 

Ellen, Ernest Clay, and Kate Jones - Chicago, 1975
The New York Times hardly “scooped” the story about Ellen being a lesbian.

She was, from 1974-75, the co-president (with Jim Wickliff) of the then-fledgling organization known as Integrity, which had been founded by Louie Crew.

Her diaconal ordination in 1975 at St. Peter’s, Chelsea, had even drawn a small protest demonstration.

Rather than being "news" the headline only served to feed into the worst fears of sexism and homophobia, each of which has deep roots in the other.

Nick Dowen, long time convener of Integrity/NYC, remembers it clearly. “I had come home from work and turned on the six o’clock news. There was a film clip of Bishop Moore, ducking his mitre under heavy television cables on his way into Church of the Holy Apostles (where the ordination took place). It was clear that he was not pleased with all the attention.”

“I was thunderstruck,” Dowen said. “This signaled a new openness for gay men and lesbian women in the church – my church – and I couldn’t have been more proud.”

That was to be short-lived. At the next vestry meeting of the Church of the Ascension, which had been the meeting place of Integrity/NYC, the Vestry voted to ask the group to leave the church premises. Dowen was a member of the vestry at the time and only he and one other vestry member voted against the move.

Kate, Ellen & Louie Crew - Chicago, 1975
“It was an unexpected and decisive vote and it really shook me,” said Dowen. “I have been part of what I like to call ‘Liberal American Protestantism’ all my life, which had a long tradition of extending a warm welcome to everyone.”

“This was one of the most formative and transformative experiences of my life. I had never even heard of Integrity before Ellen’s ordination, but you can bet I got involved.”

Anyone who knows Ellen – now a monastic known as Sr. Bernadette – can tell you that she is the least likely person to cause such a tempest in the baptismal waters of the teapot known as The Episcopal Church.

The biographical statement of her life, which appears in the Religious Archives Network reveals no indication of a woman who would one day become above-the-fold headline news in the New York Times.

Here are a few highlights:

Barrett was born on February 10, 1946 in Lawrence, Kansas and hails from a proper Episcopal family - baptized at Trinity Episcopal Church and confirmed in the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia.

Her mother was secretary of the English Department at VMI (Virginia Military Institute). Her father was a professor at Washington and Lee University, chairing the Department of Roman Languages and also served as an  attaché to the U.S. embassy in Ecuador.

She has a solid educational background. Her secondary schooling began in Stuart Hall, an Episcopal school for girls in Staunton, Virginia. She later graduated from Lexington High School in Virginia. Her undergraduate career had two stages: she first attended Southern Seminary Jr. College in Buena Vista, Virginia, graduating in 1967; from there she went to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, graduating in 1970 with a BA in English literature.

In 1975, Barrett was awarded a M.Div. with honors from the General Theological Seminary, a member of its second class to admit women. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in medieval history from New York University in 1982, writing her dissertation on the only indigenous religious order in medieval England, the Gibertines, covering the order from its foundation in 1131 to the canonization of St. Gilbert of Sempringham in 1202.

She has worked mostly as a non-stipendiary and interim priest, and has taught medieval and church history at a variety of academic institutions in the Greater New York area, including Fordham University, New York University, Manhattan College, Union Theological College, New York Theological Seminary, and the Theological School of Drew University. 

Real radical stuff, eh?

Had she been male and heterosexual, she would have had "all the right stuff" to be on the fast-track to the episcopacy - or, at least, a prestigious dean or cardinal rector. 

Such a pity she has contributed to the downfall of the church in particular and Western Civilization in general, not to mention the destruction of family life and the corruption of the morals of our youth – and, no doubt, is the real cause of Global Warming, tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes.

Sr Bernadette
Today, Sr. Bernadette lives the solitary life of a monastic, occasionally augmenting her below-the-poverty-line pension with short-term interim and supply duties.

“She has paid a huge price in deployment because of her pioneering,” says Louie Crew, a long-time friend and fellow pioneer, adding, “I hope that everyone in the church will celebrate this occasion. It would also be very nice if a purse might be given.” (Not to worry. See below)

The thing about decisions and destiny is that many may happen quietly and even silently, but the ones that change lives rarely come without high cost.

I am deeply grateful for those who came before me who stepped out in faith, never counting the cost. I believe with all my heart that I would not have been ordained almost 26 years ago without the courageous witness of women like Ellen Barrett.

The Rev’d Dr. Ellen “Sr. Bernadette” Barrett has gone about these past 35 years quietly doing the work God has called her to do, being an unsuspecting and unintentional prophet in a not-for-prophet church.

I hope we both live long enough to see Sr. Bernadette in a newly revised edition of "Holy Women, Holy Men". The preface of that book says this:
In these saints we encounter not models of absolute perfection, but men and women whose lives, with all their diversity of gifts and graces, were reshaped by God's redemptive activity. May we take heart as we realize that, in spite of their failings and ours, we are all alike redeemed sinners called to be saints, those in whom the risen Christ's words to St. Paul come to fulfillment: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2Cor.12:9)
Like Foucauld, Ellen "Sr. Bernadette" Barrett has shouted the gospel with her life, as the destiny of the church to embody the equality and liberation and justice of the Realm of God has quietly been revealed – despite the occasional blaring of headlines.

NOTE: If you would like to celebrate our history and honor Sr. Bernadette’s contribution to the life of our church, please make a check out to Integrity/USA and mark it “In honor of Sr. Bernadette” and mail it to:
David Cupps, Operation Mgr.
838 East High St. #291
Lexington, KY 40502
Or, visit the IntegrityUSA website ( ) and click on the “Donate Now” link to your right, being sure to indicate “Sr. Bernadette” in the box marked: “Dedication”

All contributions will be sent directly to her.

Thank you!

P.S.  Thank you to Louie Crew for the pictures of Sr. Bernadette from his own private album.


Betsy Hess L5 New Hampshire said...

Ellen Barrette kindly met with me when she was working as a librarian at UC Berekeley. I had just realized I was a lesbian while living in Montana, and was reaching out to Episcopalians who could help me make sense of it all. She and Louie Crew both were exceptionally kind in going out of their way to meet with me.

Thanks for letting us know what she is doing now. I thank God for her ministry, and hope she will see this and know her kindness is still remembered!
Betsy Hess

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I've never known Ellen - Sr. Bernadette (old habits die hard, excuse the pun) - to be consummately gentle and kind.

penny johnson said...

A friend sent me the link allowing me to hear of Ellen's life after years of losing touch, for which I am most heartily grateful. My warmest wishes and bouquets of blessings go to her,
in amicitia, Penny Johnson

penny johnson said...

After many years I am delighted to hear news of Ellen and send her my warmest wishes and bouquets of blessings,
in amicitia,
Penny Johnson

Mary O'Shaughnessy said...

I do not understand Elizabeth Kaeton's comment, especially on the anniversary of St. Bernadette's priesting. Where is the Christian charity in that?

Ana said...

Thanks so much for this. I remember Sr. B from the mid-80s. We both sang alto in the choir at St. Luke in-the-fields. Her voice is still the one I hear in my head when I think of the Exultet. We would write notes on our bulletins during the sermons, and she taught me patience (a Sisyphean task if ever there was one).
Love, love, love.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Mary - thanks for pointing that out. I meant to write: I've never known her NOT to be consummately gentle and kind.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Ana - She's the best. And, I know she's read this post and these comments.

Turtle Woman said...

Stunning herstory at its best.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I don't make it up. I just report it. Ellen did all the 'heavy lifting' by living her life with integrity and authenticity.

Anglocat said...

I had lost touch with Ellen some years ago, and was not aware of her monastic vocation, but she was an exemplary and wonderful spiritual director for me at a very difficult time for me.

Elizabeth, might I ask you to let me know if circumstances have bettered for her, and if not is the purse still open? I'd be happy to contribute my mite.

I can be reached at

Unknown said...

I plan to reach out directly to Ellen at some point but I did want to mention that she might be one of the smartest people I have had the pleasure to chat with. Ellen's mother, Marie was my mother's (Margaret Barrett Joyner) half sister. I still remember having a wonderful time discussing a wide range of topics with Ellen when she visited us in Chapel Hill NC many years ago. I have always been proud of the fact that I was named after my mom's family (my name is Barrett Joyner) and the life Ellen has led makes me doubly proud that I share that name, Barrett.