By Victoria Ungvarsky
This past July, Harcourt Parish bid farewell to Reverend Helen Svoboda-Barber, the Gambier community’s longest-serving rector since the 1800s. Svoboda-Barber left Harcourt Parish after 10 years to pursue new opportunities as the rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham, N.C.
Although she began at Harcourt in 2004, Svoboda-Barber’s Kenyon legacy began over 190 years ago with Bishop Philander Chase. In 1824, Chase founded the College as an Episcopal seminary and assisted in the establishment of Harcourt Parish only three years later. Svoboda-Barber is Chase’s great-great-great-granddaughter, and she grew up hearing stories about him.
“When I began doing a national job search, the first thing I did was check to see if there were any Episcopal churches founded by Philander Chase that were looking for a new priest,” Svoboda-Barber wrote in an email to the Collegian. It turned out that Harcourt Parish was the perfect fit, and she and her husband, Shawn, and then-six-month-old son, Charlie, relocated to Gambier in 2004.
During her time at Harcourt Parish, Svoboda-Barber sought to strengthen the church’s spiritual core, while encouraging greater engagement with the Kenyon community. “Over the past 30 or 40 years, the College [has] evolved in ways that separated it more from the Parish,” she said. “But in the last five years or so, the Parish has worked hard to understand where the College is now and where it is going, and to find ways it can be meaningful to the College now and into the future.”
She cited the Parish’s increased focus on community service as a way of engaging students. In particular, Svoboda-Barber loved the Rummage Sale as a way to get students involved with the Parish and help the community. “It’s terribly hard work, but so much fun, too,” she said. “The literal tons of stuff we keep out of the waste stream, the number of students and community members we help, the nonprofit agencies that receive the grants from the sale … [is] phenomenal, and very memorable.”
Although Svoboda-Barber wanted to strengthen the connection between Harcourt Parish and Kenyon students, her true passion was delivering the message of God. As rector, she served as the head of the Church of the Holy Spirit and acted as a spiritual guide to her parishioners. Svoboda-Barber cited the people of Harcourt Parish as her favorite part of working there. “Everyone who attends makes a conscious choice to be there — no one is attending to be seen or because it’s the thing to do,” she said. “They are witty and intelligent and dedicated and faithful.”
One of her favorite memories of her tenure is the “Maundy Thursday” service each year, which takes place on the Thursday before Easter to commemorate Jesus’ last supper with His Apostles. “That service traditionally ended in the dark, with [Professor of Drama] Jon Tazewell and me belting out ‘Were You There’ so loudly that the roof almost flew off,” Svoboda-Barber said. “The intensity of that moment, repeated yearly, has been a high point of my ministry.,”
But her enthusiastic singing is not the only mark she has left. Svoboda-Barber greatly influenced Gregory Stark ’13, who is now studying in the seminary at Yale Divinity School. “Her focus was very much on fostering those individual relationships between parishioners and students and people in the community,” Stark said. Svoboda-Barber helped develop Stark’s spiritual beliefs and she baptized him into the Episcopal Church during his sophomore year. Stark spoke about her dedication to encouraging the relationship between students and the church: “[She] was really key in making sure there was still an Episcopal student ministry … [and] making sure there was still a presence on campus,” he said.
Rebecca Ogus ’14, a former member of the College’s Episcopal student organization Canterbury Kenyon, fondly remembered Svoboda-Barber’s welcoming nature. “In inviting the congregation to Eucharist [the sacrament of Communion], she made sure to note that it was not the Episcopal Church’s altar or Harcourt Parish’s altar but God’s altar and ‘you are welcome here,’” Ogus wrote in a Facebook message to the Collegian. “In a world where so many people have been rejected and traumatized by organized religion, to me this felt like a way to get back to the root of love, compassion and acceptance that is present in Christianity.”
After a decade at Harcourt Parish, Svoboda-Barber is excited to take on new challenges, but she will always think fondly of her time at the parish her great-great-great-grandfather started. She hopes new generations of students will not be afraid to stop by. “Just wander in any Sunday morning at 10:30 and see what you find,” she said. “You might make a new friend, you might hear something to ponder, you might even find something you didn’t know you were missing.”