The Philadelphia Eleven

Last fall, I was privileged to attend an online private screening of The Philadelphia Eleven, a new documentary about the first women-ordained priests in the Episcopal Church. Those eleven women were ordained on July 29, 1974, at the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, two years before the Episcopal Church officially permitted the ordination of women. It is fair to say that their “disobedience” in being ordained (and that of the bishop who did so) helped to break up the log jam of hesitancy that had built up at many General Conventions and provided the path forward now for several generations of women clergy. 

I was surprised at how emotionally moving the film was.  I found myself in tears—I knew many of the stories depicted in the film because I had read them. But I hadn’t heard the voices themselves—of those who opposed the ordinations, demeaning these women and their call; or of most of the women themselves, speaking about their commitment to their call, but also their fear, and in many cases their disappointment in how the church isolated them. 

I am aware that I rest on the shoulders of many ordained women who came before me—and all those who supported them. I have not yet been able to track down how the Diocese of Arizona (and its bishop) voted in the General Conventions of 1973 and 1976. 

The film includes interviews from a recent gathering of those who are still living from the first eleven priests; interviews with the Right Rev. Barbara Harris, who served as the crucifer at the ordination; and news footage from 1974, which is the obstacle to the full release of the film: they have not yet been able to raise the funds to purchase the rights to the news coverage. 

They are inviting gifts from Episcopalians and supporters of women’s progress in the church to meet the goals necessary to have the rights to all the footage in the film, which will allow them to give it an open release and tell this story not just to the Episcopal Church, but to the wider world. 

If you’d like to learn more, or support the final production of the film, you can do so here

Philadelphia Eleven

2 comments on “The Philadelphia Eleven”

  1. Two of the eleven were classmates of Sam and me, Betty & Merrill. Sam and I were at the ordinations that day (along with our 2nd son in utero). Sam participated in laying on hands. The following year I was a member of a national committee strategizing for the 1976 convention. It was an amazingly moving event. I can’t wait to see the movie. If you can find the photo online of the ordination with Bishop Welles laying on hands, Sam is the young bushy black-haired priest at the bishop’s left.

  2. I will repeat a tale I’ve told before from the 1991 General Convention held in Phoenix where, as a volunteer, I was assigned to the House of Bishop’s Secretariat. Barbara Harris was the only woman in the HOB at that time, and a goodly number of her peers refused to speak to her and did their best to ignore her. She often spent breaks with us in the HOB Secretariat, where we were all women, and we enjoyed her immensely. She was a lovely, gracious woman who never uttered a word of complaint. Our volunteer group thought her lonely and felt blessed by her presence and that she was comfortable with us.