Katrina Swanson, 70; One of First Female Priests in Episcopal Church

Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Katrina Swanson, who challenged centuries of church law in the 1970s as one of a group of women ordained as the first female Episcopal priests, has died. She was 70.

Swanson died Aug. 27 of colon cancer at her home in Manset, Maine, said her husband, the Rev. George Gaines Swanson, who also is an Episcopal priest.

“Katrina Swanson was a pioneer, and without her, I wouldn’t be here,” the Rt. Rev. Chilton R. Knudsen, the Episcopal bishop of Maine, said in a statement that saluted the priest as a believer in orthodox faith and equal rights for women. Knudsen is one of 12 female bishops in the Episcopal Church today.


On July 29, 1974, Swanson’s father was among the bishops who defied church authorities to preside over the ordination of Swanson and 10 other women during a three-hour service at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia.

“In spite of the circus atmosphere, it was a very reverent event and very thrilling,” the Rev. Suzanne Hiatt, who was among those ordained, recalled in 1994 of the ceremony that drew joyous shouts and occasional boos. (Hiatt died in 2002.)

Two weeks later, the church declared the ordinations invalid. The women were not allowed to lead services and were sanctioned for violating church law.

In a plea bargain that allowed Swanson to avoid a church trial, she was forbidden from wearing clerical garb and suspended for three months from working as a deacon in Kansas City, Mo.

To keep his job and quiet the controversy, Swanson’s husband was forced to fire her as his unpaid assistant priest at his inner-city parish.

She received a pay raise when a priest at a poor parish in St. Louis hired her as an assistant priest for a dollar a year, a token gesture to show she was officially on staff.


Although she encountered “great hostility” at first, Swanson viewed the trailblazing ordination as the unavoidable push the Episcopal Church needed to accept women as priests and bishops.

“We tried a whole lot of legal ways to help it happen within the church,” Swanson once told the Associated Press. “Unjust mechanisms [were] used over and over again. People were sending the issue back for more study and more study.”

The Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women in 1976, and the women known as the irregular 11 became officially recognized as priests.

In the United States, the Episcopal Church now has more than 4,000 female priests and deacons, according to church statistics. The church does not keep a separate count of female priests.

Katrina van Alstyne Welles was born in 1935 in Boston. Her father was an Episcopal priest, and her family moved around the mid-Atlantic states for his work.

When she pondered what she wanted to be when she grew up, she often thought, “If I were a boy, I’d be a priest,” she told the Bangor Daily News last year.


Instead, she earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1956 from Radcliffe College and started to work her way through Europe but cut her travels short to marry the Rev. George Swanson.

The couple moved to the California towns of Menlo Park and Coalinga before spending a year in Botswana. With two preschoolers in tow, they traveled a parish the size of France.

“She was a great Land Rover driver who never got stuck in the sands of the Kalahari Desert,” her husband said.

While in Botswana, Swanson was struck by the sight of capable women forced to hire alcoholic and abusive men to read morning and evening prayers in the thatched mud schoolhouses that served as churches on Sunday.

Only the men were allowed to speak in church, and the injustice of it rankled her.

“It percolated in her that it was evil and wrong,” her husband said. “She called up her father and said, ‘Daddy, I believe I have a vocation to the priesthood, and I want to get moving.’ ”

Her father, the Rt. Rev Edward R. Welles II, then the bishop of West Missouri, had advocated the ordination of women in a book published in England in 1928. His daughter would be the fourth generation in the family to enter the ministry.


She became a deacon in 1974 -- the Episcopal Church had opened that role to women in 1970 -- and was a member of a small committee that plotted the secret ordination later that year.

The sisterhood of “irregular” priests helped Swanson and her husband relocate in 1978 to Jersey City, N.J., an area where many women worked in the church. George Swanson took over an inner-city parish there, and she ran a church on the same road a mile away in Union City, N.J.

From a hospital room in New York City, Swanson fielded the phone call offering her the job at St. John’s Parish. She was recovering from a radical mastectomy and lymphectomy, and the odds of surviving more than 10 years were not in her favor.

Swanson served the parish for 17 years, establishing bilingual services and a bilingual after-school program that provides care for more than 100 children.

She insisted her parishioners call her “Katrina,” and cited the apostles as her example. “Peter, James and John didn’t have fancy titles,” she said. “So why should I?”

In addition to her husband, Swanson is survived by two sons, Olof and William, and a brother, Peter Welles.


A service that will include members of the “irregular 11” is being planned. Contributions may be made to Katrina’s Fund - Liberty & Justice for All, c/o Theodore Fletcher, P.O. Box 8, Southwest Harbor, ME 04679. The money will be used to promote the inclusion of women in society.