Sister and friends gathered in the chapel of the Community of the Transfiguration, Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 18 to celebrate Sister Priscilla Jean Wright's forty-five years of service in the diaconate. She is believed to be the last deaconess in the United States serving as a deacon today. Her dual vocation, of sister and deacon, reflects the deep roots of women's ministry while responding to changing times.
When Wright, teaching school in Southern California almost fifty years ago, began discerning, there were basically three choices for women who felt called to dedicate their lives to full-time work in the church. They could enter life in a religious community, pursue certification as a professional church worker, or become a deaconess. Usually these callings involved work then conventional for women, such as education or nursing, and often they meant serving in domestic or foreign mission fields.
Wright, influenced by Deaconess Evelyn Ashcroft, who had served in the Philippines during World War II, chose to enter diaconal ministry. While those called to ordination today may deplore the complexities of "the process" required by bishops and commissions on ministry, Wright met with her bishop, took a psychological exam, and was quickly off for the Central House for Deaconesses in Chicago. There she became part of the first group of four women to study at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, in the Masters in Christian Education program.
In her own account of those years Sr. Priscilla noted, "The senior class was not pleased and they made themselves very tedious if not downright obnoxious. The other men were fine and I really had a wonderful two years."
Her degree and canonical exams completed, Wright was set apart as a deaconess by Bishop Francis Eric Bloy at the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Los Angeles on June 18, 1964. "Setting apart" was a rite for dedicating women to diaconal service, separate from, though in some dioceses resembling, ordination.
Having worked at Good Shepherd Mission in Fort Defiance, Arizona, one summer during her training, Wright boarded the El Capitan train bound for Gallup, New Mexico, and returned to the Navajo Reservation as a new Director of Religious Education.
"I loved the Navajo and my work there, but I felt the need of community," Wright remembered. Her exploration of the call to religious community intensified. Having become an associate of the Community of the Transfiguration, she applied to enter the convent.
When the General Convention of 1970 authorized the ordination of women to the diaconate, there was an understanding that deaconesses were within the order of deacons. "We were grandmothered into the ministry, I guess you would say," notes Sister Priscilla. At the time of this transition, she attended the General Theological Seminary and received a Master of Divinity degree.
Much of Wright's service since then has been in the Dominican Republic, where the Community of the Transfiguration operates El Centro Buen Pastor in Barrio Las Flores, San Pedro de Macoris. There the sisters feed children living in extreme poverty and oversee a school, clinic and church.
"I've had the joy of visiting the ministries in the Dominican Republic that are dear to [Sister Priscilla's] heart," commented Susanne Watson Epting, executive director of the North American Association for the Diaconate, in an interview with Episcopal Life. "It has been a privilege to get to know Sister Priscilla. She is part of a legacy given by the deaconess community that many of us still learn from and are in awe of."