Melinda Hall Makes Northwestern Pennsylvania Home

The Rev. Melinda Hall spent time in South Korea, Lebanon and England and lived in Kentucky and New Jersey before she moved to Brookville, Pennsylvania. Despite her global experience, she hoped her next career move would keep her in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

That wish came true on Sunday when she was named dean-elect of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie. When Hall, 35, takes up the job in mid-October, she will be the first woman to lead the congregation of 250 members and the youngest cathedral dean in the Episcopal Church.

The superlatives attached to her appointment don’t interest her nearly as much as the opportunity to be involved in Erie’s rebirth.

“This is a fascinating time for Erie and for the cathedral congregation,” Hall said. “As downtown Erie redevelops, the cathedral’s more open spirituality and tradition of beautiful worship can provide opportunities for people to find a sacred space where they can connect to themselves and to God.”

When Hall speculates about the potential of attracting newcomers with Anglican liturgy, she is speaking from experience. Raised in an evangelical Christian church, she drifted away from that tradition in college and fell in love with choral evensong while studying abroad in Oxford, England.

Shortly before that, she had abandoned an economics and finance major in favor of English literature and enrolled in some theology classes.

“It blew my mind,” she says. “People asked any question they wanted. Growing up, I had never heard that Jesus cared about poor people.”

Unsure about a career path, she followed a mentor’s suggestion and applied to seminary. After deferring her enrollment for a year to teach English in South Korea, she started at Princeton Theological Seminary, where an Episcopal Church sits on a corner of campus. She walked in, she says, and never walked out.

After Princeton, she spent a fellowship year in Lebanon learning about Islam and Middle East church traditions, and then a year at General Theological Seminary in New York studying Anglicanism. She and her husband, the Rev. Nathan Royster, a Presbyterian minister, moved to Brookville in 2012, where she was ordained by Bishop Sean Rowe in 2013. She served in DuBios and then in Brookville as vicar of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

The couple, whose son was born in March, will move to Erie in the fall.

“Living in rural America has been the experience of a lifetime,” she says of her time in Brookville. “I cannot catalog the number of things I’ve learned.”

For Ed Palattella, the cathedral’s senior warden who led the search for a new dean, Hall’s commitment to the region helped her stand out among the dozen applicants for the job.

“What really impressed us is her vision. In northwestern Pennsylvania, we have our struggles, but we have so much talent here with what is happening in Erie. We wanted someone dynamic, a community builder, who will continue making Erie aware of the Episcopal approach to investment and engagement in the community.”

When Hall’s election was announced on Sunday at the cathedral’s principal service, the news was met with extended applause, Palattella says. The Very Rev. John Downey, who has been dean since his successor was in preschool, told the congregation that the hire was “brilliant.”

Palattella says that the cathedral’s congregation “wanted us to make a bold move” in hiring the new dean. He credits Rowe with fostering a desire for innovation.

“The bishop pushes us to think beyond ourselves, to approach what we want to be in a big way without being unreasonable. He’s supportive of not limiting our thinking based on our geography or economy.”

For Rowe, a native of the region who only recently relinquished the title of youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church, hiring Hall is the right response to the new energy he finds in the city and the congregation.

“Melinda is a first-rate preacher and teacher, and she is deeply committed to our region,” he said. “Her faithfulness to the gospel and energy for collaborating make her the ideal leader for a cathedral in a city poised for change.”

On the day after the announcement of her election as dean, Hall and Royster spent the afternoon house hunting in Erie, an endeavor that gives her a personal stake in the city’s revitalization. But even as Erie makes room for young couples like them, she is committed to ensuring it also cares for people too often pushed aside by urban redevelopment.

“The church needs to be a voice of faithfulness making sure people on the margins aren’t left out of change,” she says. “We can model what reinvestment in communities looks like.

“At the core of who I am as a priest is the conviction that the church exists for the world.”

Praying with Icons

In this second installment of our prayer video series, Dean Downey of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie discusses using icons as part of your personal prayer practice.

Other videos in this series:
Personal Prayer Part 1 – Developing Your Personal Prayer Practice
Personal Prayer Part 3 – Praying the Daily Office
Personal Prayer Part 4 – Walking the Labyrinth
Personal Prayer Part 5 – Centering Prayer

Advent is Different

What we Americans call “The Holidays” begins on Thanksgiving (or before) and continues through New Year’s Day. It is a time of eating, drinking, and spending, with distinctive decorations, sounds, and stories, and with a seemingly endless round of activities. It is also a time of generosity and service to those in need. It puts before us images and expectations of happy families and friends, with everything coming together just right, maybe even a “Christmas miracle.”

While some of us do experience such happiness, or some of it, many of us are painfully confronted with other realities – loneliness, loss, family tension, stress, exhaustion, and a sense of disappointment, if not failure. “The Holidays” are probably a mixed bag for most of us. How welcome, then, is the gift of Advent.

Advent is different from “The Holidays” even though it happens at roughly the same time. It looks, feels, smells, and sounds different. It holds off the Church’s celebration of Christmas until December 25, a celebration that is then kept for Twelve Days, continuing past the time when “The Holidays” have been packed up and put away. Thankfully, the Episcopal Church does a pretty good job of keeping Advent in all its difference, because we need it.

I used to be quite Puritan about all this, wanting the whole world to keep Advent and to keep Christmas away until the 25th. But it is a losing battle and only leads to frustration and needless isolation. “The Holidays” are our culture’s way of marking the end of the year and I join in, trying to make the best of its joys while being sensitive to its difficulties.  Advent in the Church, then, becomes a welcome space apart and away from what is going on all around us. It offers something different, something which allows for reflection and perspective.

That would be welcome enough in itself, but Advent also provides us with an opportunity to be honest about life’s difficulties. The readings, music, and prayers put us in touch with the prophets, with John the Baptist, and with Mary and Joseph before Jesus was born. They allow us to see and admit that all is not right with the world, including with ourselves, and they also invite us to hope in a God who will put things right, even if that is hard to see at the moment.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu often told how, during the Apartheid years in South Africa, he would go around telling suffering people that God was in charge. Then he would go to his prayers and ask God, “Why can’t you make it more obvious that you are in charge?’ That is the spirit of Advent. And that spirit will take us to Christmas with honest and open hearts, remembering that the baby of Bethlehem became the young man who was executed on the cross and rose from the dead, filling us with Holy Spirit, inviting us to trust that God is love.

 

The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey is Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie. 

 

Taking it On the Road: The Cathedral Choir Tour of 2018

After two years of planning and preparation, the Cathedral Choir and some additional travelers will depart for Coventry Cathedral and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.  Why in the world would anyone undertake such a project?

A choir tour is great fun for the singers.  It’s a chance to travel abroad, sing in wonderful places that you would not be able to sing on your own, and visit sights you would not see otherwise.  It builds camaraderie within the group.  It enhances the musicality of the choir.  It’s great for the choir.  But there are other aspects.  It’s a pilgrimage, a time for personal reflection and spiritual renewal.  Individuals are moved to depths they might never otherwise experience.  It also allows us to bring a bit of the US, Erie, the Episcopal Church and our Diocese to those who hear us sing.  We’re ambassadors, perhaps even evangelists! The majority of the music we will be singing is by American composers, including Harry T. Burleigh.  We’ll be bringing copies of our CD to distribute to share the story and music of Burleigh and his connection to our Cathedral and city.

Here are some quotes from individuals on our last two choir trips that illustrate the impact:

“It was the trip of a lifetime which we will always cherish.  It certainly left a mark on us spiritually and made us proud to be Episcopalians.”  “Much had been spoken in advance about the pilgrimage aspect of our trip but I was thinking of it only as a vacation.  However, our first night singing at Canterbury Cathedral it hit me during the anthem of what I was doing.  I knew that if I gave into those feelings I would not be able to finish the piece so in true “stiff upper lip” mode, I pressed on.  That was a moment I will remember for a long time.” 

On this trip, August 3-13, we have 24 singers, most of whom are regular members of the Cathedral Choir.  Our organist, Ethan LaPlaca, grew up in Erie, earned a degree in music education and organ from Duquesne and now teaches in Mt Lebanon.  He has been coming to Erie this past year to play for Evensongs as we prepared the repertoire for the trip.  In additional to the singers, we have family members and friends who will travel with us, bringing the total number of our group to 41.

We begin with a weekend in Coventry where we will sing for the morning Eucharist and Evensong.  Coventry is unique, having been bombed in WWII and later rebuilt, preserving the ruins.  Dean Witcombe writes on their website: “It is a wonderful and renewing place for anyone of any age to visit. The narrative of chaos and destruction being taken and offered back to God, issuing in resurrection and new life, is one that speaks into the reality of lives of many of our visitors. The Cathedral is a physical expression of hope, of love, and of celebration.” 

The majority of our time will be spent in Oxford, with the choir singing daily services at 6:00 pm from Tuesday through Sunday.  We also sing for Choral Matins and the Eucharist on Sunday morning.  And there will still be time for some touring each day before our daily choral services.

Dean Downey will be preaching at the morning Eucharist while we are in Coventry. He will also serve as the Officiant at Evensongs while in Oxford.  Deacons Dorothy Konyha and Richard Nygaard will be traveling with us, too.  Look for updates about our adventures while we are away. Please pray for safe travels and new encounters with God’s grace and glory.

Sharon Downey is Canon Musician for the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie. 

Hold On! Keep Your Hand On The Plow

The Cathedral Choir is about to introduce a new CD.  That sounds as if we do this often; we do not.  Our first and only other CD was recorded about 25 years ago.  This new one is a recording of African-American spirituals arranged by Harry T. Burleigh.  So why would the Cathedral Choir make a recording of African-American spirituals?  For us at the Cathedral of St Paul, it was quite simple: we wanted to bring the music and life story of this most remarkable man to the people of Erie, the diocese and beyond.  It is our way of “living history” and making it relevant in contemporary time.

Spirituals are a significant part of American choral literature.  The melodies are true American folk songs, passed on by oral tradition.  Burleigh’s arrangements transformed the simple melodies he learned from his grandfather on the streets of Erie into classic art songs and choral works using his distinctively American harmonic language.  Some are quite jazzy!  His music is especially important to us at the Cathedral of St Paul because of his connection to Erie and our church.  We have continued to learn more and more of his arrangements.  Some are fairly simple and some are quite difficult.  Following the celebration of the Cathedral’s Centennial  a few years ago, we were encouraged to make a recording of his music.  I was a bit hesitant to take on such a project.  Singing live is one thing; recording is quite another.   Live performances bring his music to life but in order to share it with a broader audience, we needed to record it.   And there was no better time or place to do it: we have an exceptional group of singers right now and we are in the very place where Burleigh first sang as a young boy and teenager.  He received the sacraments at St Paul’s and his musical foundation was formed in this building.  It just seemed right to move forward with the project.

We hired a local company and spent two days in March recording.  Over the next several months I worked with him on finding the best takes of the choir and soloists and came up with our final product.  Many hours were also spent finalizing the design and information to be included on the cover.  But we expect delivery of the final product this week!

That bring us to the release of the CD, Hold On! Keep Your Hand on the Plow.  On Sunday, November 5, at 4:00 PM, the Sunday following All Saints’ Day, we’ll commemorate the life of Harry T. Burleigh with a traditional Choral Evensong followed by the singing of some of his spirituals and an opportunity to purchase the CD.  There will be a festive reception, and more Burleigh spirituals, as well as an art display by one of our choir men, Jon Chisholm.  He has donated several of his works of art for silent auction the proceeds going to help with expenses of the choir’s trip to England next summer.

I am thankful for the encouragement and gifts from the Cathedral Chapter and members of the Cathedral of St Paul that made the production of this CD possible.   Special thanks to AJ Noyes for the cover design and to Jim Steadman for the cover photo.  And I am incredibly grateful for the Cathedral Choir, their countless hours of rehearsal and their devotion to bringing this music to life for all to enjoy.

Sharon Downey is Canon Musician for the Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie. 

Engaging Community with National Night Out

The Cathedral of St. Paul participated in National Night Out on Tuesday, August 1st at Gridley Park on Erie’s lower west side. National Night Out is a national event which seeks to show unity, encourage everyone to play a role in supporting the education of youth in our neighborhoods, and to take a stand against crime in our city by building stronger police-community relationships .

More than 1,000 neighbors enjoyed the festivities from 6:00pm to 9:00pm on a beautiful  summer  evening at Gridley Park. All enjoyed a free hot dog dinner, fun games and activities in which parents and children were able to participate together, and listened and danced to a mix of local musical entertainment. There were also over two dozen social service agencies providing helpful information and giveaways.  Police, fire and emergency service providers gave tours of their vehicles and educated young and old about their services.

The event is grant funded through the Erie County United Way and additionally sponsored by five neighborhood watch groups and more than twenty five neighborhood businesses and churches.

As an inner-city church in the heart of downtown Erie, much of our outreach is focused on our neighbors and National Night Out is just one more example of our ministry to and with our neighbors and we are so thankful for the opportunity.

Cass Shimek is the Cathedral Administrator and is a member of the Our West Bayfront National Night Out Committee.

Reflections on Holy Land Pilgrimage 2017

During the second half of May, I had the privilege of leading an Eastertide Holy Land Pilgrimage. The group of 25 included pilgrims from both the United States and Canada, 11 of whom were from the Erie area. It was my fifth trip to Israel and Palestine, the first one in 1985 and then four since 2004. In some ways, the spiritual impact of journeying to the Holy Land had been accomplished for me in previous trips. However, leading a group, sharing their experiences and seeing things anew through their eyes was a blessing for me. And the itinerary included a few places I had not been before.

We began with three days in Galilee, staying at the beautiful and restful Pilgerhaus, a German Benedictine guest house. From that base, we saw Nazareth, Cana, and other sites near or around the Sea of Galilee. A particular joy was worshiping on Sunday morning at Christ Church, Nazareth, an Episcopal Church packed with parishioners and pilgrims for a Eucharist in both Arabic and English. In Galilee, I was especially aware that we were immersed in the sights and sounds of the places where Jesus grew up, and where his vision and mission were forged.

Our journey then headed south through the West Bank where we saw vividly the difficulties and challenges of what is often called “the situation,” that is, the continuing occupation of Palestinian territories. This includes the region of Samaria and the town of Nablus, where Jacob’s Well can be found, as well as an Episcopal parish and hospital. The Diocese of Jerusalem supports many such hospitals, clinics, and schools, often in places of great need. Further south, we renewed our Baptismal Covenant at the Jordan River and went on to two days in Bethlehem, arriving the same day President Trump had been there. In addition to the Church of the Nativity, we visited ministries sponsored by Roman Catholics and Lutherans. After a visit to Hebron and the Tombs of the Patriarchs, we made our way to Jerusalem for our final four days.

While in Jerusalem we stayed within the walls of the Old City at a guest house in the former seminary of the Latin Patriarchate. We visited all the holy sites one would expect including the recently restored Tomb of Jesus (Holy Sepulchre). We shared in joyous worship at St. George’s Episcopal Cathedral where I was invited to concelebrate with two bishops from England, one from Trinidad and Tobago, my colleague and co-leader the Dean of Hamilton, and the Dean of Jerusalem, who is an Arab Israeli. And this really was just another typical Sunday at St. George’s!

Along the way our group celebrated the Eucharist on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, in the Shepherd’s Fields in Bethlehem, and, on the final day, at Abu Gosh, one of the sites which recalls Emmaus. At each of these sites, the Roman Catholic custodians were most gracious in providing for our celebrations like any other group of pilgrims. As we were about to leave Abu Gosh, I noted that the statue at the Lady Altar looked like a modern rendition of Our Lady of Walsingham, the principal English image of Mary. As I drew closer, I saw a plaque with the Canterbury Cross on it beside the altar. Stitch by stitch, the broken Body of Christ is being repaired.

In the pilgrimage brochure, I had written, “A pilgrimage to the Holy Land changes things. Past and present, sacred and secular – these are seen in new ways, somehow not so neatly separated as we usually view them. To be at the great biblical sites and the historic holy places alongside the current life of Israel and Palestine is a singular experience which changes how we understand things, and often changes us.” Once again this proved to be true in the experiences of our group. Talk of the next pilgrimage is already beginning.

The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey, Dean, the Cathedral of St. Paul

Renew the Ties of Mutual Regard

This article is reprinted from the November issue of The Bell, the monthly newsletter of the Cathedral of St. Paul. 

As I write this, Election Day is just a few days away. I am writing, however, thinking of the days which will follow the election. For so many of us, this campaign has been distressing, and often discouraging. As a child and young person, I followed presidential campaigns with excitement. Now parents and teachers are not sure children should even watch the debates. How we got here should not be oversimplified and, while it came to a head in this campaign, the factors are multiple, complex, and were a long time in the making. There will be much to reflect on and learn from for many years, if we are willing and able.

It will be most important, in the aftermath of this election, to take up the work of repairing our damaged social and civic fabric. This damage has touched so many aspects of our lives, form our institutions, to our relationships, to our memories and imaginations. High profile leadership will be important, but the most important work will be done by us, quiet work, person to person, in our homes, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods and communities. Our baptismal commitments point the way – to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself; to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

bcpOne of the prayers in our Prayer Book puts it well. “Renew the ties of mutual regard which form our civic life. Send us honest and capable leaders. Enable us to eliminate poverty, prejudice, and oppression, that peace may prevail with righteousness, and justice with order, and that men and women from different cultures and with differing talents may find with one another the fulfillment of their humanity.”

It is a gift of grace that we can come together with Jesus week by week at the Lord’s Table, and then go forth from there to take up the life of God’s Kingdom in a troubled world.

The Very Rev. Dr. John P. Downey, Dean, the Cathedral of St. Paul 

Love Them

This is a post about the partnership between the Cathedral of St. Paul and Emerson-Gridley elementary in the City of Erie public school district.

I remember it very well, my first-grade classroom at Asbury Elementary in Millcreek Township. I loved everything about it. I was so excited to finally be able to go to school and could hardly wait for the first day. My mother made me a special new dress; my name was embroidered on it so my teacher would know my name at a glance. Our desks were in neat rows and I sat in the front of the room. I remember this because our music teacher would roll the piano into our room right in front of my desk. I would watch her fingers fly across the keys, sparking my interest in piano lessons and asking my parents for a piano.

Now fast forward to this past February when I was heading into a first-grade classroom at Emerson-Gridley to volunteer. I had all of the clearances and training required and was excited about this opportunity. Probably not as excited as anticipating my own first-grade experience, but excited about spending time in a classroom. I have always felt the pull of becoming a classroom teacher, either in music or general education. My degrees are in organ performance, choral conducting and church music, applied music, not music education. At many points in my education and career I have considered adding teacher certification to my credentials. When the Cathedral began its partnership with Emerson-Gridley and the call for volunteers in the school came along, I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to give it a try.

IMG_3012 (3)So my first day began by meeting the school guidance counselor who took me on a tour of all the first grade rooms ending in Mrs. Steele’s classroom. This is where I would be volunteering. Mrs. Steele welcomed me and introduced me to the class. The walls in the room were brightly decorated. There was a “Word Wall” with columns of words under each letter of the alphabet that the students were learning every week. There was a list of the children’s names on one board. I could only pronounce a few without help. The desks were grouped into three or four sections, not rows, and there was a carpet on the floor for story time. She asked the students to read at their desks and then called on a few children and me to sit with her to read aloud. We worked together to help students sound out words and read sentences. Once she saw I was comfortable working with her students she asked me to work with several children who needed some extra help with reading. We made flashcards and played relay games and all sorts of things to help them recognize the difference in their “w” and “wh” words. I was hooked. I knew my Monday mornings from then on would be spent with Mrs. Steele’s class at Emerson-Gridley.

As that first morning progressed, one student left the room and came back with a box of snack bags for the children filled with cherry tomatoes. Every day the students are given a mid-morning snack of fresh vegetables. They look forward to it. If the designated child doesn’t remember to go for it, she is reminded by her classmates. She always offers me a snack, too. She and others in the room often express concern that I might be hungry, too. The students all receive a hot breakfast before class begins, a mid-morning snack and lunch. Many stay after school for another snack and some for dinner before going home. Monday morning is difficult for them. Many do not have regular meals at home and they are very hungry when they come to school after a weekend. It is not unusual for several of them to fall asleep with their head on their desk while I am there.  There are lots of red and watery eyes looking up from a book or paper as they struggle to stay awake and concentrate.

Now they and I are anticipating the end of the school year. I have been going weekly and have developed a good relationship with the class. Mrs. Steele has given me the freedom to prepare a music lesson each week. We are working on developing a steady beat, following directions, using body percussion, chanting poems using their rhyming words and recently added playing percussion instruments. They love to share their latest achievements with me, “Mrs. Downey, did you know that I….” Now I share their mid-morning snack with them. We chat and giggle about the fresh green pea pods or juicy tomatoes or squishy cucumbers. I love the big smile that comes across each face when I call them by name. I love it even more when they cheer when they see me come through their classroom door with my bag of instruments. I think about each child often. They are now in my prayers, not just as students at the school but as individuals with names, faces and feelings. Some days I leave in tears because so many were overly tired and out of sorts. But more often than not, I leave with a big smile on my face and a happy heart.

The City of Erie schools are stressed. The administrators and the teachers are stressed. And most importantly, the students are stressed. A volunteer’s job comes with little stress: just show up and spend an hour or two a week in a classroom with some amazing children. Learn their names. Talk to them. Smile at them. Read to them. Love them. And pray for them and everyone who works to care for and nurture them. You will be hooked. And you will never be the same again.

Sharon Downey, Canon Musician, The Cathedral of St. Paul, Erie, PA 

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