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The ‘Philadelphia 11’ who shattered the stained-glass ceiling: 40 years la …

Pictured here are some of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. First row, from left, Alison Palmer and Lee McGee. Middle row, Nancy Wittig, Alison Cheek and Merrill Bittner. Back row, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward and Marie Moorefield Fleischer. (Alison Palmer and Lee McGee were ordained in Washington in 1975.) The picture was taken at Episcopal Divinity School in May 2004 during a celebration of the life and courage of the Rt. Rev. Robert DeWitt.
Pictured here are some of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. First row, from left, Alison Palmer and Lee McGee. Middle row, Nancy Wittig, Alison Cheek and Merrill Bittner. Back row, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward and Marie Moorefield Fleischer. (Alison Palmer and Lee McGee were ordained in Washington in 1975.) The picture was taken at Episcopal Divinity School in May 2004 during a celebration of the life and courage of the Rt. Rev. Robert DeWitt.

Photo courtesy Episcopal Divinity School

Pictured here are some of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. First row, from left, Alison Palmer and Lee McGee. Middle row, Nancy Wittig, Alison Cheek and Merrill Bittner. Back row, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward and Marie Moorefield Fleischer. (Alison Palmer and Lee McGee were ordained in Washington in 1975.) The picture was taken at Episcopal Divinity School in May 2004 during a celebration of the life and courage of the Rt. Rev. Robert DeWitt.

WASHINGTON (RNS) On July 29, 1974, in Philadelphia, 11 women broke rank and were ordained as the first female priests in the Episcopal Church. They became known as the “Philadelphia Eleven.”

While there was no church law explicitly prohibiting the ordination of women, there also was no law allowing it. After the Philadelphia protest at the Church of the Advocate, the 11 women were deemed “irregularly” ordained, and Episcopal bishops warned the church not to recognize the women as priests.

Two years later, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention — under pressure from the events in Philadelphia and elsewhere — affirmed and authorized the ordination of women to the priesthood. Today, the church is led by Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, the first woman to lead a national branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

In the 40 years since, the “Philadelphia Eleven” have gone on varied paths working in churches, at therapeutic horseback riding centers, retirement and more. Click on the pictures below to learn more about what the “Philadelphia Eleven” are doing today.

Photos of Alison Cheek, Suzanne Hiatt, Betty Bone Schiess and Nancy Wittig are available for web distribution.

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Heather Adams


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  • And now, their church is basically dying. Was it because of women’s ordination, and the fact that the women who desperately wanted to be ordained were desperately liberal, decided to ignore anything the bible had to say, if it did not conform to their liberal views?

    Yes, probably. Now the Episcopal church is in a rocking chair, along with many of these women.

    Next, I hope we have an article about the people that stopped coming to the Episcopal church because of their shenanigans.

  • Just curious about their marital status (a stat usually given for both men and women in stories like this.) I ask because one article I saw a number of years ago claimed that, of those married, their marriages fell apart before or after their Episcopal ordinations.

  • They were criticized and reviled then and it doesn’t seem like that has changed much. Prophets and agents of change are often scapegoated, it seems. These women and others have changed the church for the better and I am truly grateful to them

  • God bless these pioneer women and the people who supported their vocation. I have learned much from women priests in TEC, and women priests will lead our faith community into a great future. Rock on!

  • Um, Plasterini… and other mainline churches *aren’t* dying? The reason churches are dying has little to do with whether they are “liberal” or “conservative”, but rather has everything to do with the complete conversion of the average American lifestyle from one of community-mindedness and interdependence to one of rugged individualist, over-scheduled, rather stay-at-home, entertainment on-demand, etc. Other more “conservative” churches have also bled members by the thousands, and the vast majority did so for reasons other than the internal bickerings over orthodoxy, theology, etc.

    Are you planning to lob similar criticisms at other denominations that have allowed female pastors? We’re happy to allow you plenty of rope…

  • Sort of makes you wonder.

    When humanitarian accomplishments appear
    in the religious world
    They have certain consistent characteristics.

    They reject
    The Bible – (women must be silent)
    Or The Dogma – (Only people with penises can preach)
    Or The Preachings – (Slavery is god’s holy law)
    or The Claims about God – (He won’t allow deviations from His Bible)
    or Biblical Claims of Male Church Hierarchy – (Aint no lady Popes)

    it is so much easier to simply be a humanist in the first place.

  • I regret that this celebration turned quickly into defensive political divisiveness. Signs no doubt of the death throes of patriarchy. However, I wish to recognize the Washington Four who followed the Philly 11 and were irregularly ordained in 1975. The Rev. Lee McGee, one of those DC four, is front and center in the photo. Their anniversary will be in 2015. My own, as one among the first groups of women to try for ordination as priest after it was “legalized” in 1976, will be 2016. (It took many years however for me to convince the Church I was a priest.) I rejoice with us all, and with the Episcopal church, diminished as is all religion right now, but very much alive. Didn’t God ordain humanism through incarnation?

  • @Lyn,

    You said, “Didn’t God ordain humanism through incarnation?”

    The validation of the Laws of Moses and the injunctions of Jesus through ‘incarnation’ or Resurrection would be among the most inhumane acts in history.

    “Execute them in front of me” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)
    For what? Not obeying the nobleman?
    There is nothing humanitarian about it.

    People do not reject religion because they are afraid of personal responsibility.
    People reject religion because personal responsibility is not found in religion.


    “Christianity is saying that every person, man, woman, child, slave, barbarian, no matter who, is made in the image of God and is therefore of enormous value in the eyes of God…. That’s an extraordinary message. And it would have been enormous news to many people who never saw their lives having value. I think that is a powerful appeal of this religion…. The Christian movement seemed to convey a sense of human worth” – ELAINE PAGELS


    Jesus: ‘Knock knock’
    “Who’s there?”
    Jesus: It’s me, Jesus
    “What do you want?”
    Jesus: “I want to save you from the eternal torture I’ll give you if you don’t let me in.”

    “Eat of my body” and “be baptized and believe”
    or “Be condemned to Hell”
    (John 6:53-54) (Mark 16:16)

    Perhaps we can acknowledge that the ‘Messianic Age’ of 500 BCE to 100 CE was a dawning or re-awakening of humanist ideals but Christianity’s ghost (figuratively speaking) wanders the world today, like Islam, doing much more damage than good.

  • @Deacon Santiago

    Well. Since you brought them up:

    So called ‘St. Teresa’ of Calcutta loved poverty and dedicated her life to promoting poverty. She stole the millions from the poor in Haiti for her self-named torture wards where people with very treatable illnesses died for lack of proper hygiene and medical care. Nobody in recent history did more to promote ignorance and want than ‘Mother Teresa”. To learn later that she was struggling with lack of belief in God reveals why she was so evil. She hadn’t the courage to think for herself. Teresa was responsible for the needless deaths of thousands of poor people. Her legacy continues to haunt everything she touched.

    St John Batiste de la Salle – Is an example of exactly what I was pointing out. His brilliant insight that education would be the remedy to poverty was his greatest gift to French culture. But it speaks against religion itself which rejected education at every turn and rebelled against de la Salle frequently.
    Today we see Christianity promoting the bankrupt philosophies of Creationism and Intelligent design – eschewing science and the human power of observation.
    Religion first says “NO!” then it says “OKAY” then, when it is shown to works it says “look how clever god is!” Ridiculous.

    St Damien of Molokai – A truly great man. A sad death. Today there are 22,000 men and women similar to Damien working for Medicins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) who volunteer their lives everyday to save people who are in war zones like Syria and destitute places like Haiti. They go unnoticed by the churches because most of them are Atheists.
    Yet they do just as much good as Damien.
    Before you ever say anything bad about Atheism – remember the 22,000 Damiens out there working for DWB every day. No religion is needed to be a humanitarian. Atheists prove it every day.

  • Yes, Frank.
    The church requires division to survive.

    “Do not think I have come to bring peace.
    I am impatient not to bring peace…but division” – Jesus

    “I have come to bring FIRE on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!….what constraint I am under until it is completed!
    Do you think I came to bring peace on Earth?
    No, I tell you, but division.” – Jesus
    (Luke 12:49-51)

    In a modern world of Nuclear Weaponry we cannot bother with these primitive ‘scriptures’. God’s warring days must be put to a stop.
    Jesus must be abandoned.

  • WOW 0.o

    Max said something nice about not one but TWO CATHOLIC SAINTS!!!

    Max> St John Batiste de la Salle – His brilliant insight that education would be the remedy to poverty was his greatest gift to French culture

    Max> St Damien of Molokai – A truly great man

    I guess he thinks religion is not as bad as he has been trying to make us think.

    Perhaps there is still hope for him?

    “Viva Cristo Rey!!”

    PS> Max, Before you blow a gasket, I’m just trying to liven a very boring Thursday afternoon 🙂

  • If the church were really dying these people wouldn’t be pouring so much energy into putting it down. Carry on.

  • The Episcopal Church is in good heart and reports of its demise are greatly exaggerated. It is a Church of tradition but not one where you have to check your brain at the door

  • @Deacon Santiago,

    Don’t get so excited.
    My grandmother was a great Catholic too. As was my father.

    But they:
    did not like Jews and unintentionally passed that on to my siblings.
    needlessly worried about Hell.
    needlessly worried about the Devil.
    needlessly felt guilty about missing Mass.
    needlessly felt guilty for not forgiving criminals who hurt them.
    needlessly suffered sexual problems because of religion.
    needlessly shamed certain people who disagreed with them about god.
    believed Catholics were better than other sorts of Christians
    believed only Catholics had the true faith
    believed the bloody death of another person made them guilty.
    believed their lack of faith killed certain members of our family.
    believed god’s hatred of gays was proper.

    St John and St. Damien probably had those problems too.
    Religion is nothing but a disaster. Even when good people use it to do good things they would have done anyway.

  • @Deacon Santiago,

    I feel I must add that I am not against Catholics.
    I only challenge them when they tell me that I must agree with their conclusions.

  • John Henry Newman used his brain and became a Catholic. And many of the great literary giants of 20th Century British literature were Catholic.
    Having womenpriests pretending to be fathers is just part of the modern confusion of the sexes that leads to things like the absurdity of gay “marriage” and gay “married” bishops.
    The Episcopal Church should grow–it is doing everything the secular world wants from them. .

  • Jesus was abandoned. Hitler and Stalin and Mao stood in his place. Three poster boys for post modernism at its best. It seems a pity that what fuels aggressive atheism is the very same absolutist rage you seek to place at he heart of religion.

  • @John Pryor,

    You are being reckless. Don’t conflate me with Al Queda!
    how dare you?

    I’m not interested in division. I’m interested in peace.
    Where is the peace in the Middle East – Grand Central Station of the ‘Peaceful’ God of Abraham?

    I’m not interested in ‘burning the earth’. Jesus is! Good grief.
    Jesus is calling for arson. I am a fireman trying to put it out with reason.

    Please don’t talk to me of ‘absolutist rage’.
    Atheists like me are trying to battle Al Queda and other faith-based groups with words! We are trying to shed light on the contradictions of these absurd, ridiculous Faith-based programs like Suicide Bombing and Genital Mutilation!

    A militant Atheist is just a man with some books!
    A militant Christian or Muslim is carrying anything BUT books!

  • The Episcopal church is not dying. It is stable, and welcoming. No matter what stage of belief people are in. Why do you carry so much hate and anger?

  • You’re right – it isn’t because they are women, it’s because the liberal women who sought to change the church brought humanism into it. Now, we have a slew of mainline churches saturated with a christianized form of humanism that has made these denominations apostate churches.

    Think I’m being radical? Ask them to affirm Jesus’ statement in John 14:6. They won’t.

  • Not only that, but you don’t have to be born again and they won’t try to make a disciple of you.

  • Newman became Catholic because he was an Anglo-Catholic and he probably had a sense that the establishment in the Church of England wouldn’t tolerate Anglo-Catholicism over the long haul. Now, it’s pretty much dead.

    He was a pioneer. I say anyone who is faithful to God and the traditions of His church, but is still in the Anglican Communion, should follow Newman’s lead – if they are not called to ministry. If you’re called to ministry, Rome isn’t the church to be in because of it’s oppressive culture over the priesthood.

  • @Mike,

    It is great that the whole ‘born again’ fad is disappearing.
    But it is even better that ‘discipleship’ is going away.

    Closing one’s mind for the rest of one’s life
    simply because of a few delusional moments in a church one Sunday
    when one is going through a rough patch
    is no way to live.

  • @Karl,

    “Why do you carry so much hate and anger?”

    I don’t see ‘so much’ hate or anger. Just a rational, reasonable
    dismissiveness to silly claims and dangerous ideas.

    There is no way to use religion safely in my opinion.
    There is no safe or healthy interpretation of this sort of insidious nonsense:

    “Bring to me those enemies of mine and execute them in front of me.” – Jesus (luke 19:27)

  • @Rev Nancy E Richards,

    You said, “They were criticized and reviled then and it doesn’t seem like that has changed much.”

    But really, how can it change?
    Adherence to ancient scribblings is a doomed enterprise – like trying to claim certainty from a clutch of Tarot cards.

    The Bible is not open to editing. And what a shame it is, too.
    Because it is so fundamentally ancient and ridiculous.

    This is why things can’t change:

    “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (1 Corinthians 14:34)
    “I am the LORD, and I do not change.” (Malachi 3:6)

    And so, it doesn’t matter what you or I think.
    And further, it doesn’t even matter if the whole thing is a contradiction unto itself!

    “Blessed are the peace makers” – Jesus
    “I come not to bring peace..” – Jesus

    Let alone that this is obviously speaking out of both sides of the mouth.
    If Jesus is God on earth, he is indeed changing his mind from day to day.

    I would imagine being a Reverend today must feel at times like being a blacksmith.
    The internet has made the Bible easily searchable and revealed these claims, assertions and theories to be gibberish.

  • My late mother-in-law, the Rev. Katrina Marha Van Alstyne Wells Swanson was such an inspiration in my life that upon her passing into paradise we founded http://www.KatrinasDream in her memory to promote the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment here in the USA. Katrina’s Dream mission is to promote the full inclusion of women in the Church and in Society and other social justice programs. I am currently making a pilgrimage across the USA for the ERA. Please see

  • Helene Swanson, inspired by Rev. Katrina Swanson of the Philadelphia 11, is in turn an inspiration to many of us in the Episcopal Church. Please support her walk across the U.S.A. for the Equal Rights Amendment! Write your State legislator about passing the E.R.A. in your state.

  • In a country awash in Christian nonsense
    We have just been handed the worst decision against women’s rights
    in decades with the Supreme Court’s decision on Hobby Lobby.

    Why do Christians keep pretending that they care about women’s rights?
    If you cared about women’s rights you would be FURIOUS about the Hobby Lobby decision.

    Women who think of themselves as Christian would do well to
    First consider whether Christian superstitions aren’t fundamentally arrayed against them.
    And Second, whether any effort to promote Christian teaching is going to do any good at all!

    It is pointless to push for an ERA while Christ rules over your politicians!
    It is practically a national emergency to speak up against religion and its disgraceful superstitions!

  • Well, your numbers are not encouraging, let’s say that. It’s shrinking rather quickly and monetary resources are getting very tight.

    I’m not Episcopalian or Anglican, so it’s none of my business, do as you wish. We don’t share the same understanding of priesthood. It makes no difference to me.

    If we are going to have ecumenical dialogue, however, and we are mandated by Christ to do so “ut unum sint”, we should do so without hatred, anger, or ill-will. I do believe we can no longer speak to one another theologically, it’s not working.

    We first need to understand each others’ theological anthropology. That must be the starting point, that is, what is the nature of man, of women, of men? I am sad that in all my discussions with Episcopalian clergy and laity, they cannot for the life of them communicate this. Without this, we cannot progress to understanding each others’ theology.


  • Quoting Scripture doesn’t mean you understand Scripture, which you clearly don’t.

    You really must stop your rantings, you don’t come off as educated, or even contrarian, but more of a crazed lunatic.

    I’d recommend understanding Scripture first before quoting it.

  • Humanist on who’s terms?
    You simply replace yourself with God. That doesn’t work out well when you look at the atheist dictators like Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler etc….

  • On that very first Easter morn, WOMEN went back to Jesus’ tomb, to complete the burial ritual. An angel met them and asked why they were searching the dead for someone who was alive. He instructed the WOMEN to GO, and spread the word about Jesus. He didn’t say “Go get the men and bring them back here so I can tell them to GO forth and tell the world”. In other words, it all started with the WOMEN. They were the first to share the extraordinary truth of the resurrection. Get over it! Jesus doesn’t care who spreads the word. He only cares that the word is spread.

  • You do not understand humanism at all.Before you comment on something, make sure it is factual. Oh, I forgot. You are religious. You don’t have to be factual. Make believe works fine for you.

  • This pro-homosexual marriage and female priest Episcopal church was the reason I left it, or in reality, it left me.

    If you have no standards other than trying to placate to 1.3% of the population, and constant blow with the winds, then no, you do not hold on to tradition.

    It is a disgrace. Pretty soon, I’m sure they’ll be replacing a cross with an image of that moron Obama.

  • I know for a fact that Merrill Bittner is still with her partner of over 25 years. Which is a good 15 years longer than my heterosexual parents who were married in the Catholic church made it…. Merrill married my wife and I about 3 years ago and was instrumental in helping us grow as a couple.