The Rev. Ellen M. Barrett, an Episcopal priest and monastic, was the first openly gay person and one of the earliest women to be ordained priest in the Episcopal Church. She was born on February 10, 1946 in Lawrence, Kansas where she was baptized at Trinity Episcopal Church in September of that year. The family later moved to Lexington, Virginia, where her father was a professor at Washington and Lee University, chairing the Department of Roman Languages, until his death in March of 1972. Her mother, Marie Hamilton McDavid Barrett, was for many years secretary of the English Department at Virginia Military Institute. She and her husband translated the book, The Americas and Civilization by Darcy Ribeiro, a Brazilian anthropologist, politician and founder of University of Brasilia.
Barrett was confirmed in the R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church in Lexington, Virginia. She began school at the Colegio Americano de Quito at age 5, while her father was attaché to the U.S. embassy in Ecuador from 1951 to 1953. Shortly after enrollment there, she was withdrawn from the school due to illness; she was then tutored under the Calvert System by her mother. Her secondary schooling began in Stuart Hall, an Episcopal school for girls in Staunton, Virginia. She later graduated from Lexington High School in Virginia. Her undergraduate career had two stages: she first attended Southern Seminary Jr. College in Buena Vista, Virginia, graduating in 1967; from there she went to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut, graduating in 1970 with a BA in English literature.
In 1965, Barrett converted to Roman Catholicism. Four years later, in the fall of 1969, she worked with a community of Roman Catholic missionary sisters in New Mexico, hoping to discern whether she had any vocation for the life of a mission sister. Not long after that, she moved to New York City where she worked for the New York Public Library. During this period, she matriculated to New York University for a graduate program in medieval history, from which she graduated with an MA in 1972, and reverted back to Episcopalianism, rediscovering its catholicity and the overall flexibility of its church polity. She was formally received back into the Episcopal Church in April of 1972.
In 1975, Barrett was awarded a M.Div. with honors from the General Theological Seminary, a member of its second class to admit women. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in medieval history from New York University in 1982, writing her dissertation on the only indigenous religious order in medieval England, the Gibertines, covering the order from its foundation in 1131 to the canonization of St. Gilbert of Sempringham in 1202.
Barrett was ordained in the Episcopal Church in the diocese of New York by the Right. Rev. Paul. Moore, Jr., first as deacon in 1975 and then as priest in 1977. From approximately 1975 to 2005 she served as Episcopal cleric in a variety of city and suburban parishes, beginning her career in Berkeley, California and eventually settling in dioceses in the New York and New Jersey areas. She held clerical positions ranging from non-stipendiary Assisting Priest to paid Curé. She eventually specialized in interim ministry in parishes where a long-term rector had retired or the incumbent had been removed for misconduct. In addition to the usual pastoral and liturgical responsibilities of an Episcopal priest, Barrett ran a number of educational programs for parishioners, aimed at both adults and children. She also led numerous spiritual retreats and quiet days, and served on various diocesan councils and committees.
In addition to her work within the church, Barrett taught medieval and church history at a variety of academic institutions in the Greater New York area, including Fordham University, New York University, Manhattan College, Union Theological College, New York Theological Seminary, and the Theological School of Drew University. Her scholarly work on Church history includes an essay entitled "Validity and Regularity, an Historical Perspective," published in the Anglican Theological Review in July of 1976. She also presented papers at a number of academic conferences.
From 1974-1975, Barrett served with Jim Wickliff as one of the first co-presidents of Integrity, a non-profit organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered Episcopalians. She was an associate with the Ecclesiastical History Society of Great Britain and served as Chaplain to the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science and the Order of Colonial Lords of Manors in America.
Barrett is an associate of St. John the Evangelist. Her interests include singing, drawing, reading and traveling. Her trips to Israel in 2000 and Russia in 2001 reveal her ongoing interest in various spiritual traditions, including Russian Orthodoxy and the Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta.
In the spring of 2002, Barrett entered the Community of the Holy Spirit, an Episcopal religious order for women in New York, as a postulant. She left the order in the summer of 2003 and resumed her career as an Episcopal priest. Two years later, in July 2005, she entered the Community of St. Mary the Virgin, an Anglican religious order for women in Wantage, England, as an aspirant.
(This biographical sketch from the Biographical Note, Ellen M. Barrett papers, Ms. 2007.009, Brown University Library.)
Biography Date: August, 2009
Episcopal Church | Integrity | Ordination/clergy | Barrett, Ellen
“Ellen Barrett is my aunt, my father’s half-sister. As an Episcopalian and deeply involved in the ministry of the Church, I am enormously proud of my aunt’s trailblazing career. She has been an inspiration to me since I was a young adult and she continues to inspire me. I am in the process of writing a book about minorities who are overlooked heroes of American history. Her story is one on which I am currently working. Her contributions to our country’s struggle and growth toward equality and diversity are truly heroic.”
– as remembered by Dena Barrett on June 6, 2018
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