Rev. Jennie Talley Shatters Stained Glass Ceiling at St. John's Wilmot in New Rochelle
Rev. Jennie Talley Shatters Stained Glass Ceiling
at St. John's Wilmot in New Rochelle
by Dominique Claire Shuminova
Last Fall I was asked to write an article about the completion of St. John's Wilmot's "garden beautification project" to appear alongside Moon Baby Photo's photographs in the New Rochelle Review.
Here it is.
St. John's Wilmot Episcopal Church, known as “the little church on the hill”, welcomed the New Rochelle community with "open hearts, open minds, open doors" on the afternoon of Saturday October 1st 2016 in celebration of the completion of their recent Garden Beautification Project. Light refreshments were served while members of the congregation sang hymns in the gardens, conducted by music director Frank Pisani.
Perched atop a hill on six acres in the historic Cooper's Corners hamlet, St. John's Wilmot Episcopal Church is New Rochelle's oldest house of worship in continuous use. The church was designed by architect Alexander Durand, and built in the Carpenter Gothic style on a foundation of Westchester marble. The church's cornerstone was laid on October 12th 1859, and overlooks the busy intersection of North Avenue, Mill Road, and Wilmot Road to this day.
Enter the church's St. Francis of Assisi Garden through the arbor from Lovell Road, and step into a quaint and lovingly tended anachronism. Expect a warm welcome from New Rochelle resident and member of St. John's vestry, Joanne Bartoli, and the new rector, Rev. Jennie Talley. “The church's address is 11 Wilmot Road, but you can't stop there, not since horse and buggy days”, Bartoli laughs. She assures me the gardens were “overgrown and unsightly” before St. John's, through the generosity of The Gwendolen Appleyard Trust, hired landscaper Regina Maffei to makeover their gardens.
St. John's is seeped in history. During his “New Rochelle years”, Norman Rockwell and his family belonged to the church, and all three of his children were baptized there. On display in two glass cases in its entry hall are an assortment of historical memorabilia, including an original 1858 Hymn Book. Nestled in the Columbarium at the far end of the garden is a time capsule, waiting to be opened in 2058.
The forward-looking Reverend Jennie Talley was called as the 20th rector of St. John's Wilmot on June 5th 2016, and will become the first woman rector in the church's 158 year history when she is installed on December 10th 2016. She lives in Long Island City with her wife.
St. John's rents space to Cooper's Corners Montessori school at the location of the first public school in New Rochelle, established under the provisions of the Act of April 9th, 1795, the first public school law passed by the State of New York, and to Light And Life Korean Methodist Church.
St. John's congregation, which numbers about 85 people, cordially invites the New Rochelle community to join them for one of their upcoming events. Their annual Blessing of The Animals was held on Sunday October 2nd 2016.
Rev. Jennie Talley invited Moon Baby Photo to return on December 10th 2016 to cover her institution ceremony and and the celebratory reception proceeding it.
New Rochelle Review agreed to a follow up article.
Here it is.
Celebrating The Institution of Rev. Jennie Talley as Rector of St. John's Wilmot
Reverend Jennie Talley was presented with a ceremonial “Letter of Institution” by the Right Reverend Allen K. Shin, Suffragan Bishop of New York, on Saturday December 10th 2016, thus becoming the 20th Rector of St. John's, Wilmot, Episcopal Church in New Rochelle.
Talley, has a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from the University of California, Irvine and graduated cum laude from General Theological Seminary in New York City in 2014 with a Master of Divinity, a Certificate in Spiritual Direction, and an award for Pastoral Care. She had been serving as Priest-in-Charge for a year and a half, and was formally called to her new tenured position by the parish on June 5th 2016.
“I give thanks and gratitude to God every day for the opportunity to do the work that I do at St John's – I love what I do!” Talley tells me.
She is the first woman to shepherd the flock of the 158-year-old church, located in the historic Cooper's Corners hamlet in “Upper New Rochelle” at the intersection of North Avenue, Mill Road and Wilmot Road.
The service began with visiting clergy, the litanist, the preacher, Rev. Talley, Wardens Lanny Miller & Scott Meyer, the deacons – including St. John's Rev. Deacon Bill Cusano, the Bishop's chaplain, and the Bishop processing down the aisle of “The Little Church on the Hill”, as St. John's is affectionately nicknamed, and included an induction ceremony during which members of various ministries of the parish presented Rev. Talley with symbolic gifts as her wife Inga Sarda-Sorensen – avid photographer and Director of Communications for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force – beamed with pride.
A celebratory reception was held afterward in the old board and batten carriage house behind the chapel – also a local landmark – which was converted to a cottage in 1931 and remodeled for congregational use in 1990. Rev. Talley, in high spirits, toasted all those who were gathered, and together they rejoiced.
“We are proud of our history, but we are especially proud to say that in 2017 we are an “open church” that constantly and purposefully seeks to create a warm and loving community, welcoming everyone regardless of where you might be on your spiritual journey,” asserts Talley. “We have a beautiful little church with an amazing garden, and we look forward to celebrating more weddings at St. John's. I might also add that I feel extremely blessed as a priest in the Episcopal Church to be able to perform weddings for same-sex couples as well as straight couples.”
“We seek to be in harmony with and to cherish all of God's creation,” Talley adds. “To this end, we sponsor educational programs in local elementary schools in caring for the environment. We are also extremely pet friendly, and offer memorial services for our dear companion animals.”
“We hope you'll join us on Sunday mornings for worship at 10:30 am, or for one of our tag sales or activities that are listed on our website's events' page,” she concludes. “We also have a talented choir director, Frank Pisani, who offers a variety of worship music, and who encourages anyone to join in and come to choir practice, regardless of age or musical ability. We can promise you one thing at St. John's: Time spent with us won't be dull!"
"St. John’s Wilmot is a diverse and inclusive community of people who welcome everyone to gather together as we proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we actively encourage others — skeptics, seekers, and committed believers — to join us as we seek to love and serve the world we live in, celebrating God’s creation around us and the image of God in every individual."
Following her institution, Rev. Talley agreed to answer some of my Qs. She answered me very thoroughly and thoughtfully, with great eloquence. I was really struck by some of what she said. The only problem was, the newspaper only wanted 150 words and Rev. Talley had given me 1500. I had coaxed her story from her only to feel I couldn't use 95% of what she had told me. And so I resolved to share it here.
“I was born in Los Angeles as a 6th-generation Mormon. I learned to pray to a loving God, but ordained ministry never entered my imagination, as the Mormon Church does not believe in ordaining women. As a teenager I still prayed, but it was a very spiritually confusing time for me.”
“I majored in biological sciences in college. I was awed by the diversity of creation, the intricate workings of a cell, the physical laws of the universe and the language of mathematics to describe them. But at the same time, my faith in the existence of God was in question and my relationship with God fell into a vague awareness that would come and go. It was also during this time that I realized my many prayers and attempts at trying to be a “normal” heterosexual were futile and I was reluctantly beginning to accept the reality that I was a lesbian.”
“I thus concluded that if there was a God, God didn’t care much for me. I was beyond a place where I felt I was capable of pleasing God, so I ran away and I just kept running and hiding. There were intermittent interludes where I felt the warm sense of God’s presence, but mostly I remained hidden.”
“It was a few years later, when I was in my early 30s, that I had a life-changing experience. I was working as a realtor in Southern California with a new office manager, Patrick McVey, who was a fatherly presence. During a private meeting, after sharing a little bit about myself and updating him on the status of my real estate transactions, he looked intently at me from across his desk and said, “You know, Jennie, God loves you very much!” He stated these words with such conviction and deep kindness, and at that moment I felt the deep truth in those words. It was as if the most joyous reunion had occurred and I walked out of Patrick’s office with a hungry desire to pursue this wonderful new-found relationship with God. I immediately began a spiritual journey of searching for a deeper experience of God and a greater understanding of God’s ways."
“Patrick introduced me to several books on Christian spirituality as well as Eastern religions. I began praying regularly, but I really wasn’t looking for a church home at that time. Working most Sundays selling real estate, I didn’t have much time to explore church services, and I didn’t think there was a permanent church home for me.”
“Moving to New York City in 2000, I discovered a wide variety of religious experiences, and soon realized that my path to God would be through Jesus. I soon found my home in the Episcopal Church which spoke to me deeply in many different ways. For me, it is the place where the spiritual and religious come together and where the full spectrum of spiritual practices can be experienced — the contemplative, the communal, and the missional: the Book of Common Prayer provides me with a wonderful daily rhythm of contemplative prayer practice; the liturgical style of worship facilitates my connection to the holy within a community; and opportunities abound for taking part in various ministries that serve both the church community as well as the larger human family.”
“Working in pharmaceutical sales at the time, I admired so many of my customers who were in the business of helping and healing people. I wanted to do something to help people, too, beyond the volunteer work I was doing. As I was constantly praying for direction in what that work might be, the notion of ordained ministry struck me like a lightening bolt one day. I thought God must be making a mistake, and tried to ignore the impulse. But a sense of call to ordained ministry became stronger and stronger to the point that I could ignore it no longer. I felt a magnetic pull to the type of work that I perceived could uniquely provide deep feeding and deep healing, as I myself had personally experienced – through the Eucharist and the sacraments, through God's Word, through the liturgy, through prayer, through teaching, and through holy listening.”
“Continuing to pray for clarity and guidance in discerning a call to ordained ministry, I began hearing affirmations of God’s call from a variety of human voices. They came from my family, from religious and non-religious friends, from the occasional stranger who would mistake me for a minister. One of my customers who is Roman Catholic, and whom I had known for several years, but who knew nothing about my church activities other than that I am Episcopalian, astonished me: “So Jennie, when are you going to become a priest? I know your church has women priests and I think you would make a good one.”"
“I finally began a formal discernment process within the New York Diocese in 2008, feeling a great love for parish ministry. Called as a postulant for holy orders in 2011 by the Bishop of New York, I left my 16-year sales career to begin seminary that fall, full-time at General Theological Seminary in Manhattan. I graduated three years later with a Master of Divinity, a Certificate in Spiritual Direction, and an award in pastoral care. Serving as a seminarian intern at Grace Episcopal Church in Hastings-on-Hudson, just a few miles from New Rochelle, I had become familiar with what serving in a suburban parish was like, and really enjoyed it.”
“Clergy in the Episcopal Church apply for positions and go through an interviewing process similar to the secular world, although it can take much longer from start to finish. So before my graduation from seminary and my ordination to the priesthood, I sent out applications to churches in the area whose lay search committees were looking for a priest, and interviewed with a few.”
“Although I lived in The City, I was very familiar with most of Westchester County, and specifically New Rochelle, as that had been part of my sales territory. What appealed to me about St. John's Wilmot was it's diversity in membership – racially, economically, in sexual orientation, and politically – and I found the people to be very warm and welcoming. They expressed a great desire to welcome others to join them, and the way they welcomed me that summer of 2014 on my first interview with them, I could sense that they really meant it. Irene Schindler, the head of the search committee, and a member of St. John's for several decades, picked me up at the Metro North station and drove me to the church for my interview with the entire 8-member search committee.”
“Irene and Joanne Bartoli, a Warden of the Vestry, first gave me a tour of the church-- such a dear space-- with such beautiful gardens. I could feel the sweetness of the sanctuary, made holy by the many prayers over its 150-plus year history.”
“I accepted their offer as Priest-in-Charge on a two-year contract a few weeks later, was ordained a priest a few weeks after that, and celebrated my first mass at St. John's the following day. A year and a half later, which was this past June, the Vestry – the lay leadership of the parish – unanimously voted to call me to a more permanent position as their rector.”
“Although it is generally common knowledge across denominations which ordain women that there is a “glass ceiling” in church leadership – known as the “stained-glass ceiling” – I have had mostly positive reactions to being a woman in a priestly role and as a leader of a parish. For instance, I am often told by men and women, alike, visiting St. John's who have been raised in the Roman Catholic or Orthodox traditions how wonderful and refreshing it is to see a woman at the altar. Often, I have been the first woman they have ever seen celebrating the mass, and most have not just a neutral, but a very positive reaction to it.”
“My wife, Inga, and I were able to marry in the Episcopal Church, which was a tremendous blessing to us. As the laws of the country were changing with respect to marriage equality, so was the prayerful discernment and wisdom of the Church being guided to properly care for all its members, perceiving and treating all people, regardless of sexual orientation, as equally valued and beloved by the magnanimous God who created us all. In our baptismal vows, we promise to “respect the dignity of every human being,” and we take that seriously as Episcopalians. That concept, along with Christ's directive to love God with all your might, and your neighbor as yourself, seems to guide the Episcopal Church as a whole in its demonstration of inclusivity.”
Do you have any words of advice for someone coming of age in today's World?
“You were created as a unique and beloved child of God, and God wants nothing more than to have a relationship with you. Pay attention and listen to where and how that still, small voice may be calling you in order to express the highest and best that God created you to be. And our loving God is an exceptionally forgiving God – there is never anything that we can do to escape the reach of that love."
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