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Rev. Rosemary Mitchell

Biography

Rosemary Catalano Mitchell was born in 1952 in Endicott, New York.  Her father was Sicilian and raised as a Roman Catholic.  Her mother was Italian and Presbyterian; her great-grandfather was a Protestant (Waldensian) in Italy. Rosemary was raised as a Presbyterian.   The Waldensians were the earliest to challenge the Roman Catholic Church and were persecuted for their practices of individual freedom and accepting women as preachers. In Italy, the Vatican brutally persecuted Waldensians for 700 years.  In 2015, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness from Waldensian Protestants for past persecution.

Rosemary was baptized and confirmed at Bonner Memorial Presbyterian Church, a Presbyterian National Missions Church.  The entire membership was Italians until the early 1960’s when the congregation merged with a congregation comprised of Czechoslovakians.  This congregation then chose to merge with a new church development congregation: Northminster Presbyterian in Endwell, New York.  This decision was made after my grandfather and another elder visited with the Session of a large, downtown congregation.  During the meeting our elders were asked “What exactly do you people want from us?”  My grandfather and the other elder responded “Nothing” and walked out.   

Church life was the center of family life.  Worship, Sunday School, youth group and summer camp provided strong faith formation that led to a sense of call to ministry during college.  During all this time Rosemary never heard a sermon or any bible study that mentioned LGBTQ people or the role of women in the church.  As a teenager, college student and seminary student Rosemary was very active in Northminster and Susquehanna Valley Presbytery’s youth programs.  This included a large, vibrant summer camp program.  

Rosemary attended the State University of New York (SUNY) at Cortland, New York where she was a speech & theatre major.   During summer breaks she was employed by the Presbytery as a counselor and then the Assistant Director of the summer camp program.  The Session of Northminster and Susquehanna Valley Presbytery were exceptionally supportive of Rosemary as an Inquirer and her decision to attend Princeton Seminary.  

At S.U.N.Y. Cortland Rosemary met her future husband, Joe Mitchell, a Roman Catholic.  However, her focus was on her call to ministry not on marriage.  Rosemary graduated in May 1974 and began seminary that September.  Her concentration at Princeton was Christian Education.  It was during seminary years that Joe Mitchell asked Rosemary to marry him. The decision to marry began long conversations about their beliefs and the practice of their faith. They were married in July 1977. The co-officiants at the wedding were Rosemary’s pastor and a monsignor. Rosemary was ordained by Susquehanna Valley Presbytery on October 9, 1977.   

Joe was teaching junior high school n the Boston area, and Rosemary’s first call was as Christian Educator with the Carter Memorial United Methodist Church in Needham, Massachusetts.  One evening she attended a Boston Presbytery event at the Presbyterian Church in Needham.  It was a debate between Elder Virginia Davidson and Dr. Richard F. Lovelace (Gordon-Conwell Seminary) on the 1978 General Assembly Definitive Guidance.  Virginia Davidson was brilliant.  This was an eye-opening program as Rosemary had never heard arguments regarding gay and lesbian participation in the church.   Rosemary had never heard a sermon that included “gay”, or “lesbian”.   There had been no mention in any course work during seminary. It was still a dangerous time for gay and lesbian individuals. They could not yet speak the truth of who they are.  

In 1979, she was called as the Assistant Pastor to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, D.C.  She was the first clergywoman on staff and was the Assistant Pastor to Rev. Dr. Arthur McKay.  This congregation had a deep commitment to the city. Their doors were open every day of the week. The congregation had the oldest youth tutoring program in Washington, DC known as “Community Club”.  The Board of Deacons had responded to the deinstitutionalizing of the mentally ill by creating the weekly “7-9 Social Club”. This program provided a respectful, affirming environment but no mention gay or lesbian issues but it was there that, for the first time, a member of the congregation came out to Rosemary. The member felt she needed to fully disclose that she was a lesbian before she was to be ordained as a Deacon. Rosemary did not see this as a problem. In her pinion this member had been called “by the voice of the people” to serve this congregation.  And the ordination proceeded.   

In 1985, Rosemary was called to serve as one of four co-pastors at Downtown United Presbyterian Church, Rochester, New York.   This congregation had an exceptionally deep commitment to the co-pastor model and to deepen their understanding of co-ministry.  Imagine the surprise to discover that Virginia Davidson was a member of this congregation!  This was a Sanctuary Church and a More Light Congregation although in 1985 no member of the congregation had publicly come out as gay or lesbian. The congregation had regularly scheduled Adult Classes on Human Sexuality and eventually gay and lesbian members felt safe enough to tell their stories.  

Rosemary was co-pastors with David Romig, Gail and Anthony Ricciuti.  Rosemary’s job description was focused on Christian Education. When David Romig announced his retirement, she asked to move into his role as the pastor for stewardship, finance, and administration having educated herself in financial management. She had had a growing concern that clergywomen did not involve themselves in financial matters of the church to their disadvantage.  David was a terrific mentor and was delighted to support her request which the Session approved.  This, of course, impacted the job description for the new co-pastor which was Christian Education.  

The Pastoral Search Committee was comprised of active, deeply committed and longtime members.   As they narrowed the field of candidates the current co-pastors were invited to interview each of the finalists. The interview with Jane Spahr was an energizing and exciting interview. It was abundantly clear that she had the gifts that most clearly matched what the position called for and what would bring light and life to the congregation. She was an excellent match and would be an incredible colleague in ministry.  

But wait! She’s a lesbian. Yes, but the General Assembly had voted on the “Definitive Guidance” in 1978 and Jane had been ordained before that date. And Virginia Davidson was a member of the pastoral search committee. Wouldn’t the Definitive Guidance “hold”?  We expected that we could trust the General Assembly ruling.  

The members of the committee spent long hours discerning who was the person to put forward to the congregation for a vote. It was impossible to ignore the fact that Jane Spahr was the best candidate for the position and for the life of the congregation.

In November 1991, Rosemary moderated the Meeting of the Congregation to vote on the recommendation of the PNC to call Rev. Jane Spahr. She was approved by the congregation. She was examined by Genesee Valley Presbytery that same week and the presbytery concurred.   Everything was done decently and in order.   Following the announcement of Jane Spahr’s call the following occurred:

  1. Phones at the church start ringing constantly.   People from throughout the denomination calling (remember this is pre-internet) to congratulate the congregation and to show their support!   Messages of support were written down on pink slips (those old school message pads) and posted on the bulletin board in the main hallway.  The bulletin board was covered!  
  2. Newspaper and radio reporters were calling to request interviews.  Rosemary’s job description included all communications; therefore, all calls were referred to her.  The first reporter to call said “I understand a homosexual has just become the pastor at Downtown Church”. Rosemary was caught off guard but also had the presence of mind to ask if she could call the person back.  Her next call was to an attorney in the congregation.  Attorney Rob Brown helped her get her bearings and with his wonderful humor said: “Can’t you quote John Calvin?” Well, “duh”! Rosemary observed: "I had no problem talking to any and all reporters going forward!"  
  3. Gifts of money started to arrive in the mail every day!  What a shock!  When does that ever happen to a congregation?  "It was Jane Spahr who put me in touch with reality. To my disbelieving ears she said: 'Rosemary, there is going to be a judicial case. These financial gifts are to help us pay for that.'  I was naïve and incredulous. Surely the PCUSA would uphold the General Assembly’s 'Definitive Guidance'." 
  4. Six pastors from other congregations in Genesee Valley Presbytery formally requested a re-examination and new vote on the call of Jane Spahr.  (They were certain that the members of presbytery did not understand what they were voting on the first time).      
  5. Jane Spahr was required to return to Rochester for a specially called meeting of the presbytery to be re-examined.   The presbytery, once again, voted in favor of the call by Downtown United Presbyterian Church.   
  6. The six pastors (above) filed a judicial case against Genesee Valley Presbytery regarding the call of Jane Spahr.  

As the judicial case moved forward through the Synod of the Northeast Permanent Judicial Commission (they voted to support the Presbytery) and then to the General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (who eventually overturned the decision to call Jane Spahr) the Downtown Church continued to educate itself and to seek advice on the polity and the history of such an action and possible implications.  Gratefully Barbara Wheeler and William Thompson were two of the guests.  

It was in Virginia Davidson’s living room on a Monday morning that Bill Thompson was musing about possibilities.  It was at his suggestion that Jane Spahr be called as an “Evangelist” per the Book of Order.  After many many conversations and much prayer Jane and the congregation agreed to that.  Out of these conversations was created That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS) and an agreement with the congregation in San Rafael, California to act Jane Spahr’s employer.   

By the time the General Assembly PJC issued their decision (changing a Remedial Case to a Disciplinary case, in Rosemary's opinion) enough funds had been contributed to pay all of the Presbytery’s expenses for the case and to establish That All May Freely Serve. This included establishing a TAMFS office at Downtown Church to continue to respond to phone calls from congregations, presbyteries, and news media

In 1995, Rosemary determined that God was calling her “out of the church”.  She accepted a new position as the founding Executive Director of the Women’s Foundation of Genesee Valley.  Located in Rochester this foundation made grants to programs for women and girls economic self-sufficiency in six counties in New York State.  In 2005, Rosemary was called to serve Princeton Theological Seminary where she was Director of Development and then Vice President for Seminary Relations to President Ian Torrance.   

In 2013, Rosemary left Princeton and began work for the Presbyterian Mission Agency in Louisville, Kentucky--first as a Mission Engagement Advisor for Public Witness and Advocacy and then as Senior Vice President for Mission Engagement.  In that position she oversaw a staff of 25 who were responsible for the interpretation of and solicitation of funds for all of Presbyterian Mission and per capita.  Rosemary retired from this position in June 2022.   

(This biographical statement was written by Rosemary Mitchell.)

Biography Date: December 2023

Tags

Presbyterian Church (USA) | Clergy Activist | Ally | That All May Freely Serve (TAMFS) | Spahr, Jane Adams | Davidson, Virginia West | Rochester | New York | Ordination/clergy

Citation

“Rev. Rosemary Mitchell | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 30, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/rosemary-mitchell.

Remembrances

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