Pioneering Episcopal nun and priest dies

July 25, 2011

The Rev. Canon Mary Michael Simpson, a member of the Episcopal Church-affiliated monastic Order of St Helena for 58 years and a pacesetter in women's ministry, died July 20, 2011, in Augusta, Georgia.

The cause of death was kidney failure, according to the Diocese of Atlanta.

Simpson, 85, was ordained Jan. 9, 1977, by then-Bishop of the Diocese of New York Paul Moore, nine days after women were officially allowed to become priests and bishops in the Episcopal Church. It was the first time Moore had ordained a woman, according to Simpson's account of her ministry in the book "Yes to Women Priests." She was the first nun to be ordained in the Anglican Communion.

In the fall of 1977 she became the first woman to be installed as a canon residentiary at an Episcopal Church cathedral in the United States when she was given that title at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York where she was responsible for counseling services. She had joined the cathedral staff in 1974 after her ordination as a deacon.

Simpson wrote in the 1978 "Yes to Women Priests" that in the first year of officially recognized ordinations of women, being a female priest "means living very much as a symbol."

"That opens one to all the projections of people's feelings about women, about authority, about motherhood, about sexuality, and a whole list of other things," she wrote. "There are people who love me and people who hate me without ever seeing me."

In 1979 Simpson became the first woman to be formally nominated for the episcopate. She and two others, the Rev. Lloyd Uyeki and her cathedral colleague the Rev. Canon Walter Decoster Dennis, Jr., were nominated from the floor to become bishop suffragan during a Diocese of New York special electing convention. They joined three other male nominees and Dennis was elected on the third ballot.

Simpson was the first woman to preach at Westminster Abbey in London, according to an Order of St. Helena press release about her death. During her sermon, Simpson said the church treated women like "second-class citizens," the New York Times reported in an obituary.

In a paper she delivered to the 2001 History of Women Religious Conference held at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Simpson said that she and three life-professed members of the order were ordained to the priesthood in early 1977. For the order, having ordained women "freed us from dependence on male clergy for the Sacraments," Simpson said.

"It lost us some supporters and gained others," she wrote. "A small minority of Sisters opposed the ordination of women, and with very little discussion, it was assumed that they were free to follow their consciences."

Simpson, who was born Dec. 1, 1925, in Evansville, Indiana, came to the Episcopal Church while in college, having been raised in the Methodist Church. With seminaries closed to her then in the 1940s, she studied at the New York School of Deaconesses and Other Church Workers, according to the Diocese of Atlanta.

In her early ministry she served as a missionary in Liberia, West Africa. Her ministries also included being head of school at the Margaret Hall School in Versailles, Kentucky, prior to her ordination to the priesthood. She received a Master of Sacred Theology degree from General Seminary in New York, the order's release said.

She was an active member of the Movement for the Ordination of Women in England, which began in the late 1970s and continued until women were allowed to be ordained in the Church of England in the late 1990s.

"She championed the rights of women and worked tirelessly for inclusive language in the liturgy," the order said in its announcement.

She trained at the Westchester Institute as a psychoanalyst and practiced for many years. Simpson lived in the convent in Augusta for the last three years, and most recently served at the Church of Our Savior, in Martinez, Georgia.

Simpson's funeral will be held at the convent on Aug. 20 at 11:00 am.

She is survived by her brother Frank of Texas City, Texas, and by her sisters in community.