As I walk into the main office at St. John’s in Franklin on Friday morning to meet with their new priest, I’m surprised by all the activity going on. It’s still early, but I’m Mother Elizabeth Yale’s third appointment of the day. She greets me graciously and introduces me to the finance team as they make their way out, then invites me to step into her office.
I ask how she’s settling in as we sit down. She’s only been at St. John’s since mid-July, but already she’s going full steam ahead. “I’m completely unpacked! That’s an accomplishment!” she smiles. “And I’ve reorganized the office.” Everything is tidy, right down to the desk that has her laptop and a tiny model spaceship on it. It’s a lot more efficient than my workspace, that’s for certain!
While Mother Elizabeth may be new to St. John’s in Franklin, she is no stranger to the Episcopal church in Pennsylvania. She is originally from Bethlehem, PA, and she and her family were active members at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity in the Diocese of Bethlehem. She was also ordained to the diaconate by our own Bishop Sean the day after he became the provisional bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem!
When I ask what made her decide on her vocation, she says she was drawn to the priesthood from very early on. “I decided at the ripe old age of 10 that I needed to be in the church, and the best place for me in the church was to be a priest.”
She participated in just about every church ministry open to her at that age and into her teen years, and the community at the Cathedral knew her well. So well, in fact, that even though she didn’t really tell anyone about her desire to enter the priesthood, her church family suggested the possibility to her frequently. Archdeacon Rick Cluett sent her to attend a retreat weekend for teenagers interested in ministry because he thought it was where she needed to be. The Rev. William Lane, dean of the cathedral at the time, personally came to her middle school Sunday school class and spoke to the students about what it was like to be a priest, mainly because everyone thought Elizabeth was interested. When she formally announced her intention to go to seminary, several members of the congregation came to her with stories about the exact time they knew she was going to be a priest.
Before attending seminary Mother Elizabeth did undergraduate work at Allegheny College in Meadville, where she double majored in mathematics and religious studies. “I wasn’t going to study religion since I knew I was going into seminary, and then couldn’t help myself and started taking religious studies classes.” Mathematics and religious studies might seem like two very different sides of school, but Mother Elizabeth says that taking a variety of classes as an undergrad has aided her ministry. “[It] helps me to converse with people, since so much of my job is relational.”
After finishing at Allegheny College, she went on to seminary at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. I asked her if there was anything she wished they would have taught in Seminary – “more accounting classes!” It seems that pure mathematics and accounting are very different things, and there’s a lot of accounting when it comes to running a church!
Once she finished seminary Mother Elizabeth took a position as curate and chaplain at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Houston, TX. She says there was some initial culture shock moving down South, but overall she enjoyed the city. People in the area were sometimes surprised that she was a priest, though – one person even mistook her for a college student while she was wearing her clerical collar!
She had been working in Houston for about two years when Bishop Sean called and asked her to visit Franklin and consider becoming the priest of St. John’s. “Going into it I wasn’t sure I really wanted to visit Franklin, but when I got here I loved it. I felt like this is where God was calling me, and that hopefully I would be the right fit for them… I look forward to building the Kingdom here, seeing not where I’m going but where the church is going. I’m more interested in what we can do together, and where people can surprise me, because that’s always the best thing.”
Mother Elizabeth’s other interests include children and school ministry, writing poetry, the inter-relation of science and religion, and being the family of God. She is also a science fiction fan (the model I noticed earlier on her desk is a light up replica of the original Starship Enterprise given to her by a friend).
If you’re ever in the Franklin area, be sure to stop by St. John’s and welcome Mother Elizabeth to the diocese!
Megin Sewak, Communications Specialist, Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania