Church marks 49th anniversary of women’s ordination to the priesthood

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jul 28, 2023

July 29 is the 49th anniversary of ordination of the Philadelphia Eleven –  the first women ordained priests in The Episcopal Church at Philadelphia’s Church of the Advocate. Photo: Archives of The Episcopal Church

[Episcopal News Service] July 29 – the Feast of St. Mary and St. Martha – marks the 49th anniversary of the first women – the Philadelphia Eleven –  ordained as priests in The Episcopal Church, and in preparation for this observance and the larger 50th anniversary in 2024, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has created resources for liturgical commemorations.

All Saints in Pasadena, California, plans to mark July 30 as Philadelphia Eleven Sunday. A document that includes not only historical background but also special collects, readings and a litany that can be used in worship services on July 30 is available on the diocese’s Commission on Liturgy and Music website.

The 11 women – Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Schiess, Katrina Swanson and Nancy Wittig – together are referred to as the Philadelphia Eleven.

The women were ordained by three retired bishops: Colorado Bishop Suffragan Daniel Corrigan, Pennsylvania Bishop Robert L. DeWitt and West Missouri Bishop Edward R. Welles II, who also was Swanson’s father.

A documentary about the 11 women and their ordination in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s Church of the Advocate is in final production. View the trailer here.

The ordination prompted an emergency meeting of the House of Bishops, at which the members – many of whom favored ordaining women as priests – declared the ordinations irregular and urged the church to wait for the 1976 General Convention to vote before any further women’s ordinations took place.

At that convention, the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops adopted a canonical amendment barring discrimination on the grounds of gender, paving the way for women to be ordained under canon law. The House of Bishops also recognized as valid the ordinations of the Philadelphia Eleven, along with four women ordained in September 1975 in Washington, D.C., requiring only that they participate in a liturgical “act of completion.”

More information about the years leading up to the 1974 ordinations is in a special section of the online Archives of The Episcopal Church.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.