The Reverend Rachel Harrison of St. Paul’s Episcopal Parish in Mount Vernon is like many young professionals. She graduated into the Recession and found her work life unfulfilling. She then went back to graduate school and lived for three years in Austin, Texas. Several months ago, she got a job offer in Mount Vernon, Ohio that was too good to pass up: On Friday, she’ll become the first female Episcopal priest ordained in Mount Vernon.
Harrison’s journey across the country and the Christian faith has brought her to Mount Vernon, where, in line with Philander Chase, she brings a modern pioneering spirit to her ministry.
Chase did not found St. Paul’s. Even so, the church is intimately connected to Chase and the Episcopal movement that also created Kenyon. The church, originally known as Union Church, has been around since 1825. According to Historian and Keeper of Kenyoniana Thomas Stamp ’73, the first rector of the church was William Sparrow, who was also Kenyon’s first professor.
While Harrison is the first woman to be ordained as a priest within Mount Vernon, the county has produced and supported a number of female priests, including the Reverend Diana E. Carroll ’04, who was ordained into the diaconate in Harcourt Parish and then the priesthood in Philadelphia, and the Reverend Laura Darling, and former chaplain of Harcourt Episcopal Parish in Gambier. Currently, the Reverend Rachel Kessler ’04 leads Harcourt Parish and is a colleague of Harrison’s.
The physical building of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, located on High Street and marked by foreboding Gothic spires, has been a cornerstone of Mount Vernon since 1836. The Medieval-inspired architecture is accented by a modern touch, with a sign at the front of the church declaring: “God Loves You. No Exceptions.”
For Harrison, appreciated the welcoming spirit of the church was on full display from the moment she interviewed for the job.
Harrison graduated from the Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas on May 26 and started working at St. Paul’s on June 2. Taking the job immediately after graduate school meant that her resources for relocating were limited. “Guys, I’m broke,” she admitted to the church when she interviewed for the job.
“That’s part of what is so extraordinary about this community. When I said that … nobody was worried about it,” she said. “It was just like, ‘oh yeah, someone will step up’ — and someone stepped up within 30 seconds.” For her first three months in Mount Vernon, Harrison, her husband Will and her three cats occupied a parishioner’s basement free of charge.
Harrison was raised in a Roman Catholic household and attended a Roman Catholic school. She remained Catholic through her college years at Ohio University up to taking a job at the family’s bindery in Toledo. In her early twenties, she eventually began to have doubts, both about her faith and her career choice.
After her husband met an Episcopal priest at a comic book store in Toledo, she began learning more about Episcopalianism. Eventually, she dove into the church, originally deciding she would become a deacon, essentially the highest lay (non-clergy) position in the Episcopal church.
In the back of her mind, Harrison knew that she wanted to be a priest.
“One day, I was just looking in the mirror and I had this moment of thinking, ‘you know, women can be priests.’ And it hit me really hard and I kind of repressed it for a while,” she said.
When Harrison decided to pursue the priesthood, she dealt with the challenges of not only being a woman in a still male-dominated profession, but also with growing up in a faith where her aspiration was not realizable. She said that her family, however, was very supportive of her decision, and had seen it coming before she did.
Harrison talked about how she and the other women in her class at seminary would think carefully about how they presented themselves, but she came to realize that the power in her ministry lay not in trying to be someone else, but in expressing her authenticity.
“It was the slow baby steps of looking at the mirror and looking at myself and thinking, ‘if I really believe this, if I really believe that God has called me,’” Harrison said. “‘I cannot believe that God has called a better version of me. I have to believe that God has called flawed, normal, woman me.’”
Harrison hopes that being herself sets a standard for her congregation; she wants people to know that they are good enough as they are.
Harrison’s ordination, which she likened to a wedding without control over invitations, will take place on Friday, Dec. 13 at 6 p.m. at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
Correction: The original headline of this article suggested that Rev. Harrison would be the first female Episcopal priest in the county. While other female Episcopal priests have served before her, she is the first woman priest for St. Paul’s Episcopal Parish to carry out her ordination in the county. Additionally, there have been females who have initiated the ordination process in Harcourt Parish or have been ordained into the diaconate. The article has been updated to include this information. The Collegian regrets these errors.