Eighty deans and their spouses from Episcopal cathedrals in the United States, Canada, England and the Bahamas descended on Erie for 4 days, beginning on April 7th, for the North American Cathedral Deans’ Conference. This is the first time the conference was held in Erie, which was the perfect backdrop for the conference theme of Loss and Hope.
The deans arrived to a typical Erie welcome, temperatures in the thirties and a mix of rain and snow. Many of the deans expressed an excitement to be in Erie and to be a part of the discussion around loss and hope. Dean Leighton Lee from the Cathedral Church of the Redeemer in Calgary, Alberta, said that he was especially excited to hear Sister Joan Chittister’s talk. He also mentioned that the theme of decline “speaks to all churches.” His sentiments were echoed by the Very Rev. Dr. Donald Brown, Dean Emeritus, from Trinity Cathedral, Sacramento, CA: “This is like a family reunion where one can network and generate ideas.” He also agreed that Sister Joan was a highlight and that he was looking forward to see Erie’s Cathedral of St. Paul at work in its own environment.
The conference began with Evensong, an Anglican tradition of evening prayers, psalms and canticles, which was followed by a talk from Sister Joan Chittister. Sister Joan, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is an influential religious and social leader. For 40 years she has advocated on behalf of peace, human rights, women’s issues and church renewal. She spoke about a spirituality of struggle that leads to hope. She told the audience that transformation and change doesn’t always come when we want it but rather when we least expect it. She counseled that we can choose how we respond to loss by staying forever wounded or by engaging in a process of struggle that leads to change and transformation. During a question and answer session after her talk, Sister Joan discussed the Benedictine vow of stability, the notion that they commit to one place no matter the struggle. Sister Joan has committed to Erie.
Bishop Sean Rowe and his wife Carly hosted the deans at the Erie Club for dinner on their first evening. Bishop Sean spoke to the deans about how the congregations of the diocese look up to the Cathedral of St. Paul. He also commented that the Diocese is committed to the region of Erie just as Sister Joan is committed.
A cathedral, though a parish, has a mission to the larger diocese and to the community. This allows deans, the head of the cathedral, to take risks in the name of Christian justice for the larger community. The Very Rev. Dr. John Downey, dean of Erie’s Cathedral of St. Paul, sees the Cathedral as having the potential to be “the voice to the soul of the city.” His vision for this conference was to show that Erie’s Cathedral has “embraced loss and hope in our places and in our lives with realism and resilience, all within the horizon of the great hope celebrated at Eastertide.”
The keynote speaker for the first full day of the conference was the Very Rev. John Whitcombe, dean of the cathedral in Coventry, England. The original cathedral in Coventry was destroyed by the Nazis in a bombing raid on November 14th, 1940. The dean spoke of how the building embodies loss and hope for the community. He talked about how cathedrals share in the life of the city: “When cities struggle the cathedrals do to.” He said, “There is a rich vein that runs through Coventry and it has run through it for the last 75 years and its roots lie in the Second World War and it is a vein of reconciliation.”
The conference also included local author Tom Noyes reading from his book “Come by here: A Novella and Stories,” and a presentation on school and cathedral partnerships where the panelists received a standing ovation. The conference was accompanied throughout by the music of Harry T. Burleigh. Henry Thacker Burleigh, whose grandfather was a slave, was an American singer and composer born in Erie in 1866. He made the musical and spiritual riches of the American Negro Spiritual available to vast audiences. Mr. Burleigh was baptized and confirmed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (now the Cathedral) where he also sang in the choir. As Dean Downey has said, “his music was all about loss and hope.”
One of the highlights of the conference was the “Taste of Erie” night at the Cathedral, where local foods were highlighted and enjoyed by everyone. Dean Jep Streit from the Cathedral of St. Paul in Boston, MA, approached Dean Downey with a Smith’s hot dog in one hand and a glass of wine (provided by a Cathedral member) in the other. He exclaimed his joy at the pairing of the hot dog and “the finest Chardonnay.” Dean Downey replied, “That is Erie.”