The Rev. Jo-Ann Drake, the first woman ordained to the priesthood from the Diocese of Rhode Island, wasn’t able to make the luncheon the diocesan chapter of the Episcopal Church Women hosted recently to celebrate the 49th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood. But she sent a note. It read, in part:
“On Sunday I had the joy of celebrating the 45th Anniversary of my Ordination to the Priesthood. When Bishop [Fredrick H.] Belden ordained me, he congratulated me on being the first woman priest in the Diocese. I thanked him then told him that all that really mattered was that I wouldn’t be the last.
Your gathering this day demonstrates how resoundingly God answered our prayers and affirmed our call. My thoughts and prayers are with you all and may you have a joyful and Spirit filled day.”
Drake found her way into the Episcopal Church through campus ministry programs at Rhode Island College and Brown University. Belden, a staunch advocate for women’s ordination at a time when the diocese was divided on the issue, ordained her to the priesthood on October 1, 1978, at St. Peter’s Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania, where she had been serving as a transitional deacon.
She would serve other churches in Pennsylvania and New Hampshire before returning to Rhode Island in 1993 as rector of Church of the Redeemer in Providence. Looking back on her journey, which began in a time of great uncertainty, she said recently that she “wouldn’t change a minute of it.”
Drake’s path to the priesthood began as the Episcopal Church’s sometimes fractious discernment of whether women should be ordained to the priesthood was reaching its climax. Such ordinations were not permitted when she entered Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in the fall of 1974, yet weeks earlier in Philadelphia, three bishops had ordained 11 women in defiance of the church’s prohibition.
By the time she graduated from EDS, not only had the church’s General Convention authorized women’s ordination to the priesthood, but two of the Philadelphia 11—the Revs. Carter Hayward, Ph.D and Suzanne Hiatt—were members of the seminary’s faculty.
As the church’s discernment progressed, Drake’s did, too. She had originally felt called to teach, but her interest in ordained ministry intensified, and Belden encouraged her. “I cannot say one bad word about him,” Drake said. “He was so kind and gracious and wanted to ordain a woman in Rhode Island.”
Her path “didn’t really cross,” with Hayward and Hiatt’s, Drake said, but she appreciated their example. “I admire their courage and believe they honestly were following God’s call,” she said. “What they did was grace-filled and holy; a spiritual outpouring of God’s will and God’s love.”
While a number of her classmates were involved in women’s groups and other activities, Drake said that wasn’t for her. “I’m a bookworm and a geek,” she said. “I loved having my nose stuck in a book.”
“A lot” has changed over the course of her ministry, Drake said, particularly in the acceptance of female clergy. While Drake attended chapel regularly at EDS, several of her fellow students and the faculty chose not to attend if Heyward or Hyatt were celebrating. Some bishops would not allow their seminarians to attend.
There have also been significant changes in seminary curriculum, especially around liberation theology, which was just beginning to be studied during her years, she said.
Drake is now retired and associated with St Paul’s, Pawtucket where “I do as much for them as I can,” running the website, contributing to workshops, programs, and quiet days online, and celebrating the Eucharist on occasion. She does interim and supply work, telling the congregations she visits: “I’m here to share the love of God with you. Let’s go.” and “When someone hungry in front of you, give them a sandwich, someone lonely in front of you, spend a few minutes.”
Guests at the ECW luncheon included the Rt. Rev. Geralyn Wolf, the diocese’s former bishop, who was a classmate of Drake’s at EDS, and the Rev. Elizabeth Habecker, a member of the Rhode Island Standing Committee, who was the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Diocese of Maine. Wolf, the first woman to be elected bishop of the diocese, presided at the Eucharist preceding the luncheon, and Habecker was among those who offered reflections on their ministry.
Asked what she would say to women considering seminary and ordination today, Drake responded that she would say the same thing to a woman as to a man: “follow where you believe God is calling your heart. If it’s right, God will open the doors. … Happiness in life is in finding what you discern and believe. Follow what you discern is the best for us – what God wants for us. Pray for that – trust that God is going to bring you there.” She concluded by noting, “It’s all about the journey. It’s nice to celebrate the goals, but it’s the whole journey.”