MOUNT VERNON — Rev. Rachel Harrison didn’t always intend to be an Episcopal priest — in fact, she grew up Roman Catholic, and intended to work in her family’s business in Toledo after getting her business degree from Ohio University.
“Doing something like this was not at all on my radar, and part of that was being Catholic, because women are not ordained,” Harrison said.
“I did wind up in my family’s business, and ultimately it was around that time that I sort of started to become dissatisfied with Catholicism, like how the church relates to women and social policies of the church, things that are pretty easy to ignore when you’re a college student and you’re involved in campus ministry,” Harrison said. “Suddenly once I’m 22, 23 years old and more out in the world, I was having a harder time ignoring that, and it was really getting to be a struggle for me.”
After realizing her dissatisfaction with Catholicism, she felt like something was spiritually missing. It wasn’t until seven years ago when (her then boyfriend, now husband) Will met an Episcopal priest in a comic book store, that her true calling started to reveal itself. The three of them became friends, and Harrison began to convert to the Episcopal faith. She started to attend an Episcopal church, and she and Will even got married in one.
“Pretty soon after we were married, I started sort of experiencing, not quite the same as before when I left Catholicism, a sense of spiritual dissatisfaction, like there’s something that I need to be doing that I’m not doing and I don’t know what it is,” Harrison said. After volunteering for and exploring different roles in the church, she still wasn’t satisfied, and that’s when she realized that the feeling she was having was a call to ordained ministry.
“There are other forms that a call to ordained ministry can take, but it took me a while to get to the point of ‘I think this means I’m going to quit my job and go to seminary and do a complete life change,’” she said.
In the history of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church, there have only been a handful of female priests, making Harrison the most recent one in the past decade. Harrison’s ordination took place at the church, something that was unprecedented for the parish.
According to Harrison, ordination ceremonies normally take place at the Trinity Cathedral Episcopal Church in Cleveland, which is the cathedral of the diocese, or the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio in Cincinnati. The current bishop, Bishop Mark Hollingsworth Jr., prefers to have ordinations done in the church the ordained will be serving, something Harrison says was extremely exciting for the parish.
“I don’t think they realized when they hired me that would mean there would be an ordination here,” Harrison said. “So that was really cool, because this is a church, and I think a community, that is very aware of their history. They had a lot of fun with that, this idea of ‘we’ve never had an ordination before.’”
The history of women becoming ordained in the Episcopal denomination goes back to 1974 when the Philadelphia 11, a group of female deacons, known then as “deaconesses”, were unconventionally ordained by retired bishops, although the General Convention didn’t make the ordination of women canon law until 1976. The ordination of women is more common among Episcopalians than most other denominations, with female priests in all 110 dioceses in the U.S. Many major religions, such as Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism, still do not ordain women. Despite her family being practicing Roman Catholics, she still received support from them during her conversion and her ordination. Her parents were even the ones to dress or “vest” her during the ceremony.
Her grandmother was at first apprehensive about her conversion, considering Catholicism is a part of Harrison’s Polish cultural heritage that dates back three or four generations. Despite leaving the religion, Harrison doesn’t look back on her experiences negatively.
“I don’t look back on it and think any of it was bad. Particularly my all-girls Catholic school, I wouldn’t give that up for anything. Believe it or not, it was extremely empowering in many ways, being in a situation where you’re just surrounded by a lot of strong, really cool women who are doing theology and these really cool things,” Harrison said.
While the ordination of women is now becoming more common, the first wave of ordained women had to fight for the rights that today’s women of the cloth now have, something that Harrison does not take for granted. The first wave of women who broke through the stained glass ceiling had to wear bulletproof vests during ceremonies such as the Eucharist because of the backlash they received as female priests. Ordained women, especially priests, were often mistaken for men due to the fact that they had to wear men’s garments and felt a pressure to appear less feminine by the church and the community.
“It sounds really petty, but it’s that kind of self-policing that I find exhausting,” Harrison said. “I don’t know if I could have done it if I would have had to thought through all those small details every day when I went out the door. ‘Are my earrings too dangly, is my lipstick too bold, is that going to offend someone?’ They went through all of that, and now for our sake, I think the women my age and the women who are coming up now, we’re finally at a point where we can be women, behave like women, and sound like women.”
Despite being the first ordination done in the church, Harrison says the ceremony went remarkably well. The church was able to lean on other congregations, such as Rev. Rachel Kessler and the parish of Harcourt Parish Episcopal Church in Gambier, whenever it came across a hurdle. Harrison noted that her congregation did not have anyone that could lead a complicated chant during the ceremony, but Kessler’s parish did.
“A lot of it was about leaning on community. It’s important to learn very quickly to rely on other people, and that’s really how the ordination felt. It felt like the coming together of the dioceses, my former parish, my family, and my new church family here,” Harrison said.
Harrison’s road to ordination was rather short, considering she graduated from The Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas with a Master’s of Divinity directly before starting her tenure with Saint Paul’s in June of this year.
Harrison said that while it is recommended to take a month off before serving full time, she felt the need to work right away. Seminary school and the cost of living in Austin were both expensive, leaving Harrison and her husband low on funds to start a life together in another state. They ended up living in the basement of one of the parishioners for the first three months of Harrison’s employment, letting them save enough money to rent a house in the area.
Harrison hopes that the church continues to grow along with the community of Mount Vernon, and looks forward to the next few years.
“I would like to see us go out to the community more… I would love to see us be more visible, and to see us do things like a Eucharist out on the square. Instead of having a bible study in this building, do it in a coffee shop, a restaurant,” she said. “The church doesn’t stop when I exit this building, it’s out in the world. That’s something that everyone knows intellectually, but it’s helpful to demonstrate physically.”
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