By Neva Rae Fox
More than five decades ago, while studying anthropology in college and attending the school’s Canterbury Fellowship, Priscilla Jean Wright felt a call to servant ministry. Now, at age 87, she is still active as a deacon.
Sister Priscilla is the last of the deaconesses. With a wide smile and a quick wit, Sister Priscilla is happy to share her experiences. But being called the last deaconess “always makes me laugh,” Referring to the friends of St. Paul, she joked “Phoebe and Lydia were in the class before me.”
“I’m 87 years old — that’s older than dirt,” she said, laughing. “Fortunately, I have a good sense of humor.”
Her history is important to the Episcopal Church, and the Fund for the Diaconate is reclaiming the history of deaconesses. This summer, General Convention will consider whether to include the Order of Deaconesses, active from 1857 to 1970, in Lesser Feasts and Fasts.
The Rev. Keith McCoy, president of the fund, explained that the honorific Sister was often used for deaconesses.
In 1962, Sister Priscilla studied at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, now known as Bexley Seabury Seminary, for her training as a deaconess. That era “doesn’t seem that long ago,” she said. “Time really goes faster when you are having fun.”
In her nearly 60 years of active ministry, Sister Priscilla has served in many places: Ponce, Puerto Rico; the Dominican Republic; Navajoland; Virginia; Texas; and Ohio, where she resides at the Community of the Transfiguration. (She was happy that Cincinnati was awash in Super Bowl fever, although she is “not a football fan — I like to see horses run.”)
Her ministry is filled with “a lot of happy moments. I think the first place I worked at was in Navajoland, and I liked that very much.”
Another happy moment was when “they finally let me serve as a deacon.” General Convention voted in 1970 to eliminate the Order of Deaconesses in favor of ordaining women as deacons.
But that step wasn’t without obstacles. “I had to let them know I wasn’t going to be a priest,” she said. General Convention approved ordaining women to the priesthood only six years later.
Of particular joy was her ministry with children. “Be around a 4- or 5-year-old — they will ask you anything,” she said with a wink. “I’m happiest working with little kids. They’re just hysterical.”
Her ministry also saw heartbreaking moments. “One of the saddest memories I have was very dramatic.” She was called to offer prayers with the family of a young Navajoland man murdered in his bedroom by an intruder. “That was terrible,” she said, dropping her voice. “That was a murder. I have seen people die, but that was terrible.”
Of particular importance to her formation was a visit with Deaconess Evelyn May Ashcroft, who had been in Shanghai in 1937 when war broke out between China and Japan. During World War II, she was transferred to a war camp in the Philippines, where she ministered to other prisoners. “She told us that that they were supposed to be killed,” Sister Priscilla recalled, “but the Americans came to save them.”
She named Deaconess Ashcroft as a significant role model. “She was in a concentration camp. She was great. She was ahead of her time.”
When Sister Priscilla was called to ministry, the requirements to become a deaconess were clear and simple. “You had to be a pious lady,” she said. “You had to be a member in good standing in the Episcopal Church. No scandals in your life. You had to have an orderly life. You didn’t have to have a college degree.”
Sister Priscilla celebrates what she considers the two biggest changes in the church that she witnessed: women’s ordination to the priesthood, and deaconesses entering the full diaconate “and not just glorified ministry.”
Sister Priscilla offered advice to those who discern a call to ordained ministry. “You need to ask, what does your family think of it? What is it about the diaconate or priesthood that you are called to? Just because you like to dress up in fancy clothes? Pray about it. Talk to the Lord about it.”
She’s specific in her hopes. “I hope the church continues to grow in the way of love and accepting everybody.”
She has witnessed a lot, but she remains active and undaunted. It appears that, after all these years, the only thing keeping Sister Pricilla in place are COVID restrictions.