April 14, 2021

Woman Episcopal priest, ‘a pioneer,’ dies at age 70

SOUTHWEST HARBOR – The Rev. Katrina Swanson, one of the first women to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, died Saturday at her home in Manset village. She was 70.

The Rev. George Swanson, her husband and also an Episcopal priest, said she died of colon cancer.

The fourth generation of her family to enter the ministry, Swanson was one of the “Philadelphia 11,” a group of women ordained in an irregular and controversial ceremony in that city on July 29, 1974.

The Radcliffe graduate was ordained by her father, the late Right Rev. Edward Welles II, who had advocated ordination of women in a book published in England in 1928.

In an interview last year for the 30th anniversary of her ordination, Swanson told the Bangor Daily News that as a child she spent long hours outside or at church with her father. As a girl, when she pondered what her future would be, she often thought, “If I were a boy, I’d be a priest.”

Swanson’s awareness of the role of women in the church blossomed during the year she and her husband spent in an exchange pastorate in Botswana during the 1960s.

In the villages, she saw that capable women, barred from any leadership roles, had to hire alcoholic and abusive men to read morning and evening prayers in the mud and thatch schoolrooms that became church on Sunday.

“In some more distant congregations that were sprinkled around the countryside, women had to hire men, if there were none in the church, to lead Sunday services, even to do the [Scripture] readings,” she said last year. “These little groups of women did the best they could to keep these churches going, and it seemed like such a waste of woman power to have to hire someone when they could have done it. That experience opened up my mind to ordination.”

Swanson’s status as a priest became official after the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women in 1976. Two years later, she became a rector of St. John’s Parish in Union City, N.J., where she instituted bilingual Spanish and English services and established an after-school program for children.

Until then, Swanson’s path was not simple. When she returned home to Kansas City, Mo., after the Philadelphia ordination, her husband, who was rector of an inner city parish there, had to fire her as his unpaid assistant priest to keep his job.

Subsequently, Katrina Swanson was hired for a dollar a year as assistant priest at the Church of the Liberation in St. Louis.

In 1975 Swanson signed a three months suspension from her deacon’s ministry under the threat of an ecclesiastical trial. She was the only one of the Philadelphia 11 and the ordaining bishops to receive ecclesiastical punishment.

Slowly attitudes changed and in 1979 she and her husband moved to the diocese of Newark, N.J., where other Episcopal women were working. For the next 17 years, she served as rector of St. Johns’ Episcopal Church in Unions City, N.J. Her husband’s church was a mile away on the same road in Jersey City, N.J.

Swanson retired to Manset in 1996, a place she had visited regularly since infancy.

When I was 6 months old, my parents took me to the summit of Mount Katahdin,” she said last year. “I went up the mountain in a sling made out of a sheet that was tied around my dad’s neck. My parents bought land in Manset in the 1940s and, later, built the house. This became our home, and it’s been a wonderful place. We would come here when we were between jobs. It’s always been a haven.

During her 16-month illness, friends made a cedar bench in her name on the grounds of St. Saviour’s Church in Bar Harbor. At the dedication this year, the Right Rev. Chilton Knudsen, the first woman Episcopal bishop of Maine, thanked Swanson “for being a pioneer. Without you, I wouldn’t be here.”

In addition to Swanson, two other members of the “irregulars” live in Maine. The Rev. Merrill Bittner, 58, of Bethel gave up being a parish priest to work as a guidance counselor in adult education. The Rev. Alison Cheek, 78, retired to Tenants Harbor after serving a church in Massachusetts.

The family is setting up a fund that would honor Katrina Swanson’s pioneering spirit as well as her commitment to social justice and the women’s movement, George Swanson said Sunday.

After the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution failed to be ratified in the early 1980s, Katrina Swanson stopped using the words “with liberty and justice for all” when she recited the Pledge of Allegiance, her husband said.

“Katrina would say ‘with liberty and justice for some,'” George Swanson said, “because she felt like women were second-class citizens when the ERA failed. We want to start a fund to support Alice Paul’s crusade for the full inclusion of women in society. … Katrina and many others who worked for full inclusion feel they can’t leave the situation as it is. We want to create the fund to support education [on these issues] and other ways to move the mountain.”

Alice Paul was a leader in the National Woman’s Party. In the early 20th century, she worked for passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, then worked for passage of the ERA until her death in 1977 at the age of 92.

As well as her husband, Swanson is survived by her children Olof, William and Helene; and her brother, Capt. Peter Welles.

A requiem Eucharist will be held at a date to be announced. Gifts may be sent to Katrina’s Fund – Liberty & Justice for All in care of Theodore Fletcher, P.O. Box 8 Southwest Harbor, ME 04679. Funds will be used to promote the inclusion of women in society.

BDN reporter Judy Harrison contributed to this report.

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