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The Philadelphia 11: Where are they now? - Mary Ann Mueller

The Philadelphia 11: Where are they now?
Five retired … three died ... two left TEC ... one is still in ministry

By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
August 1, 2014

Forty years ago, eleven Episcopal female deacons did something no other Episcopal woman had done before them -- they were ordained as Episcopal priests.

In so doing, they defied the teaching of Scripture, spurned Christian history, snubbed the Canons of The Episcopal Church, ignored the dictates of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, rejected the wisdom of General Convention, and offended the sensibilities of most Episcopalians in the pews. Through the years, all the other women priests have climbed up on their stoles and over their backs to the Episcopal priesthood and eventually to the episcopate.

Their ordinations set The Episcopal Church on its ear and paved the path for women all the way to the Presiding Bishop's office. The anniversary of their soul shattering event has been celebrated with much hoopla and bravo.

Where are the eleven aging women now? None are younger than 65 — three have died: Jeannette Piccard (1981); Suzanne Hiatt (2002); and Katrina Swanson (2005); two left The Episcopal Church for greener spiritual pastures: Merrill Bittner and Marie Moorefield; five are retired: Alla Bozarth, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Betty Schiess, and Alison Cheek; while only one is reportedly still in semi-active ministry: Nancy Wittig.


Nancy Wittig found employment as curate at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Morristown, NJ. However at the time, she was only allowed to function as a deacon and not a priest. She eventually became the rector of Philadelphia's St. Andrew in the Field Episcopal Church, a post she held for 20 years. Since 2007 she has been the assisting priest at St. Peter's Episcopal Church at Lakewood, Ohio, where she focuses on Adult Spiritual Life ministries. She originally was married to the Rev. Richard Wittig, a Methodist minister; since 2012 she has been married to Pamela Darling.


Alla Bozarth went on to found Wisdom House in 1974 as “an ecumenical feminist spirituality center for inclusive language worship and soul care” while she is “devoted to a feminist theology of the Divine Feminine as articulated in the Jewish and Islamic traditions and in Celtic Christianity.” She now suffers from fibromyalgia and chronic migraines and has had to curtail much of her priestly ministry, but remains active as a poet.

Emily Hewitt started out as an assistant professor of religion and education at Andover Newton Theology School, which is an open and affirming institution of higher education in the American Baptist and United Church of Christ traditions in Newton, Mass. She also was a lecturer at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, an independent center of liberal Christianity and neo-orthodoxy as well as being the birthplace of the Black Liberation Theology, Womanist Theology and Mujerista Theology. She went on to earn her law degree from Harvard. With law degree in hand, she left academia and became a judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and eventually retired as the chief judge last year.

Carter Heyward a lesbian and an LGBT activist, is considered a pioneer in the areas of feminist liberation theology and the theology of sexuality. She came to realize the connections between fundamental theology, politics, history, and psychology with gender and sexual oppressions and justice movements. She found her place at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she tenured while teaching focused on 19th century Anglican theology, feminist liberation theology, and the theology of sexuality. She also became the Howard Chandler Robbins Professor of Theology. She is a published author with at least a dozen titles attributed to her pen.

Betty Schiess at 91 is the oldest surviving Philadelphia 11 priest. Following her ordination, she filed a lawsuit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Bishop Ned Cole (VII Central New York) charging him with sex discrimination for refusing to recognize her irregular priestly ordination and preventing her from serving as a parish priest within his diocese. When the 1976 General Convention approved of the ordination of women priests, the lawsuit against the bishop was dropped. She worked in campus ministry at both Syracuse University and Cornell and became the rector at Grace Episcopal Church in Mexico, New York. She has been an advisor to the Women in Mission and Ministry in the Episcopal Church, which advocates the empowerment of women. She became a priest not for the dignity of the priesthood, but rather to be an agent of change in the church. She is quoted as saying, "My goal was not to be a priest; it was to change the church."

Alison Cheek was born in Australia. Five months after her "irregular" ordination she became the first of The Philadelphia 11 women priests to publically celebrate the Service of Holy Communion at St. Stephen & the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, in defiance of Bishop William Creighton (V Washington). She later became an assistant priest at St. Stephen's in Annandale, Virginia. Then she became the director of Feminist Liberation Studies at Episcopal Divinity School. Following the death of her husband she became interested in working with women who were seeking their spiritual identities, and administered the Philadelphia Venture in Mission project for The Episcopal Church. Eventually she moved to Maine and became a part of the Greenfire Community Retreat Center in Tenants Harbor, Maine. Most recently she has been spiritual counselor, pastoral minister, and supply priest at Peter’s Episcopal Church in Rockland, retiring last year. As a clergywoman she is one of 12 named TIME Magazine's 1975 American Women-of-the-Year. She shared the honor with Susan Brownmiller (journalist); Kathleen Byerly (naval officer); Jill Conway (author); Betty Ford (first lady); Ella Grasso (politician); Carla Hills (lawyer); Barbara Jordan (civil rights activist); Billie Jean King (athlete); Carol Sutton (Pulitzer Prize winner); Susie Sharp (state chief justice) and Addie Wyatt (labor union official).


Merrill Bittner was born in 1946 and is the youngest of The Philadelphia 11. In 1976, unable to find employment when Bishop Robert Spears (V Rochester) forbade her to exercise her priesthood, she left The Episcopal Church and travelled around the country. She said she would "no longer affiliate myself with the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America," and that she did not intend to "abandon the faith that has informed my life" or to renounce "my priestly orders or my vows to the Church of God, " but "In effect, I have not left the Church; the Church has left me." However she worked in a ministry to women in prison and as a hospital chaplain. She eventually became reconciled with The Episcopal Church where she was active in the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester as an associate priest at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Webster, New York. She also served at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Rumford, Maine. She is now "married" to her college friend Nancy Noppa and is canonically resident in the Diocese of Maine.

Marie Moorefield left The Episcopal Church in 1975 fearing her ordination would be invalidated and she would be defrocked. She then became a United Methodist minister and was a chaplain at the United Methodist Retirement Home in Topeka, Kansas. Once her ordination was validated by 1976 General Convention, she returned to The Episcopal Church and became active on a diocesan level where she served as Canon for Ministry in the Diocese of Western New York and then Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of North Carolina. She also served in parish ministry in the dioceses of Maryland and West Virginia and as a hospital chaplain at Richmond Memorial Hospital in Richmond, Virginia.


Jeannette Piccard at 79 was the oldest Philadelphia 11 woman priest to be ordained. She had already made a name for herself when in 1934, as the first licensed female hot air balloon pilot, she became the first woman to pilot a high altitude hot air balloon into the stratosphere. She is frequently called the "First Woman in Space." Following her ordination, she was a priest associate at St. Philip’s Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and was made an honorary canon of St. Mark’s Cathedral in Minneapolis on her deathbed. She was the first of The Philadelphia 11 women priests to die in 1981.

Suzanne Hiatt was active in the women's movement before her ordination. Once she moved to Philadelphia, she became active in Welfare Rights Organization, a welfare advocacy group. She then signed on with Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania as a Suburban Missioner to help galvanize suburban Episcopalians around social issues. She also became a consultant for the Episcopal Consortium of Theological Education in the Northeast, where she taught classes in women’s studies. When the 1970 General Convention failed to approve women's ordination, she lobbied for the measure's passage at the 1973 General Convention. Originally Bishop Robert DeWitt (XII Pennsylvania) planned on privately ordaining her to the priesthood as a Canon Nine priest for the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge. Even after those plans fell through, she continued to lobby for the priesthood and worked on finding sympatric bishops who would support her cause. The bishops she found to act as ordaining bishops in addition to Bishop DeWitt were: Daniel Corrigan (Colorado suffragan); Antonio Ramos (Costa Rica); and Edward Welles II (IV West Missouri). As a deacon serving at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, she was a strong behind-the-scenes organizer as a planner, orchestrator and architect of the Philadelphia 11 event. She has been called the “Bishop of the Philadelphia Eleven" because of her work to make it happen and was the first of the 11 to be ordained by Bishop Welles. Following her ordination, she settled in at Episcopal Divinity School where she tenured in 1981. She spent her entire priesthood in academia as the John Seely Stone Professor of Homiletics and Pastoral Theology. She died in 2002.

Katrina Swanson is the daughter, granddaughter, great-granddaughter and wife of Episcopal clergymen. The Episcopal priesthood was in her DNA. At the time of her priestly ordination, she was an ordained deacon on staff at an Episcopal parish in Kansas City, Missouri, where her husband George was the priest. Two weeks following her ordination, done at the hands of her father Bishop Edward Welles II (IV West Missouri), the House of Bishops declared the Philadelphia 11 ordinations invalid and she was sanctioned for violating church law. To keep his church, her priest-husband was forced to dismiss her from her position in his parish; to avoid a full blown church trial she was forbidden to wear the clerical collar and even her diaconal ministry was suspended by the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri. Eventually, she landed a $1-a-year position at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Kansas City as the assistant priest. Finally, she became the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Union City, New Jersey, staying there until she retired. She died in 2005. Katrina's Dream was founded in her honor to superficially promote the full inclusion of women in society.


Robert DeWitt (XII Pennsylvania) was recently retired. He turned his cozier over to Lyman Ogilby ((XIII Pennsylvania). Bishop Ogilby remained silent in July 1974 as the Philadelphia 11 ordination plans were being put into place and during the aftermath. Bishop DeWitt died in 2003.

Edward Welles II (IV West Missouri) was a retired bishop. His successor, Bishop John Buchanan (V West Missouri) sanctioned his daughter and forbad her to function even as a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of West Missouri. Bishop Welles died in 1991.

Daniel Corrigan, a Nashotah House graduate, he was the retired bishop suffragan of Colorado. He was an activist who marched with Martin Luther King and witnessed his 1963 "I Have a Dream" speech. He died in 1994, 20 years after participating in The Philadelphia 11 ordinations.

Antonio Ramos was the second Bishop of Costa Rica, which is now a part of the Province of the Anglican Church in Central America. Although bishops in the Episcopal House of Bishops ordained him, he is only a part of The Episcopal Church through extension. He diocese was founded as an Episcopal missionary diocese. He was only bishop with jurisdiction at the time of the Philadelphia ordinations. He is still living and has retired from his post.


In August 1974 the Episcopal House of Bishops determined "that the necessary conditions for valid ordination to the Priesthood in the Episcopal Church were not fulfilled" at the irregular Philadelphia ordination service. So charges against all four bishops were levied, landing them in hot water because they failed in "the obedience of Bishops to the Constitution and Canons of the Episcopal Church and the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer."

The violations concluded that the ordaining bishops (1) failed to get the recommendations of the various Standing Committees; (2) nor did they get the request and approvals of the various diocese bishops who were in authority over the ordinands; (3) that the bishops who officiated or assisted without the request of the sitting Bishop of Pennsylvania; and (4) all of the deacons who were ordained priests were women.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline

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