How Our First Woman Clergyperson Came to St. Philip’s
[A personal recounting written by current St. Philip's Rector Frank Geer]
In the fall of 1990, I was just beginning my fourth year as Rector of St. Philip’s.
In 1979, the Episcopal Church had decided to ordain women to the priesthood, but this change was something many parishes, St. Philip’s included, were reluctant to embrace.
On the last Sunday of August, I was leading a service of Holy Communion. To my surprise, shortly after the beginning of the service, I noticed a woman in a clergy collar come in and take a seat near the back of the church. When the service ended, I went to greet her.
“My name is Anne Stevenson,” she said. “I want to ask you for a favor.” She went on to say that her family name was Wevling. She had grown up in Garrison and her sister Ruth still was living in the community. Ruth had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
“I am finishing my studies at the General Seminary in New York City,” Anne went on to say. “I was hoping that you would allow me to serve here at St. Philip’s as an unpaid assistant during the upcoming year. I will be in New York attending classes at the seminary during the week, but on weekends I want to help here at the church in any way I can. This will allow me to come up on a regular basis and spend time with my sister and her husband during what promises to be a difficult year.
Because of the general misgivings that I mentioned earlier, I told Anne that I would have to bring her request up to the congregation for approval. The next Sunday during the service, I outlined Anne’s request and invited those present to participate in a discussion of the issues involved. Everyone rushed to the parish house after the service and soon we were all involved in a lively discussion. Was the ordination of women something that was consistent with our Anglican tradition? What did the bible say about women in the priesthood? I moderated the meeting, recognizing one speaker after another; some in favor of Anne’s proposal and others against it.
I noticed a raised hand in the back of the room. I realized it was Minette Gunther’s hand. Minette was a retired teacher from the Garrison School and was famous for her no-nonsense, highly effective style of teaching.
“Yes, Minette,” I said, recognizing her. “What do you think?” Minette stood up. She looked around the room and made eye contact with many of her former students.
Minette began, “I have taught many of you. You were good students whom it was my privilege to teach, but in all the years that I taught at the Garrison School, the best student I ever had was Anne Wevling. She was a wonderful child who has grown into a fine woman and she will be a great priest! If the rest of you are too foolish and stubborn to recognize this, THEN WHAT GOOD ARE YOU?”
Let’s just say that Minette’s sentiment carried the day. Anne spent a wonderful year with us here at St. Philip’s and made plans to be ordained to the priesthood at her home parish in Kentucky. The time she was able to spend with her sister Ruth was precious to them both. Ruth and her husband Dean started coming to church and soon the entire congregation was getting excited in anticipation of Anne’s ordination that May.
Ruth especially was excited. “I am going to fight off this cancer long enough,” she said, “to dance with the Bishop at the party after my sister’s ordination.” And she did. It was the last public event Ruth ever attended. She died at the end of June.
Anne has gone on to have a long and successful career as a priest and she and her husband now split their time between homes in Florida and Maine. Ruth’s husband, Dean, went on to be a vestryman and warden here at St. Philip’s and still sings in our choir.
Minette Gunther lives in Cold Spring and still joins us here at St. Philip’s when she can.