On April 16, the Rev. Janet Brown, the first woman ordained in the Diocese of Vermont, will retire as priest-in-charge at Grace Church in Sheldon, a parish she has led for fourteen years. Her spouse, Jean Townsend, has breast cancer, and while hope is high as Townsend receives treatment at the University of Vermont’s Breast Cancer Center, Brown decided to retire to take care of her.
“All prayers are appreciated,” she says. “We feel that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and it is really amazing.”
Brown’s retirement comes as Grace, Sheldon moves forward into a new “constellation” partnership with St. Luke’s in St. Albans. Brown has great hope for the community and its new venture. “Yes, I am leaving,” she says, “but [the Rev.] Darcey Mercier has been with us for several months. All is good. All is well.”
Brown’s path to the priesthood began at St. James in Essex Junction in the early 1970s.
“People at St. James were saying they really wanted me to be able to be an agent for granting God’s forgiveness,” she says. “In other words, I was called forth by the people. At first, I thought, ‘I don’t think I really want to do this.’ But when the body of Christ starts really telling you, I got the drift.”
Brown studied for six years. “I did not go to seminary, I read for orders,” she says. “I had a young family and I did not want to move them to a city environment. We’re kind of country people.”
During her studies and discernment, Brown was supported by the Rev. George Anderson of St. John the Baptist in Hardwick and the Rev. David Brown of Christ Church in Montpelier, and by the Rev. Alexander Smith, who served as rector of St. James for more than 25 years. All were early champions of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church.
The church wrestled with whether to ordain women throughout Brown’s studies. “Sometimes at Diocesan Convention there were very strong debates,” she says. “I tried to keep my cool, and for the most part I did.”
Women were ordained in what the church later termed “irregular ordinations” in Philadelphia in 1974 and Washington, D. C. in 1975, but it was not until 1976 that General Convention amended the ordination canons to make them “equally applicable to men and women.”
“The canon changed to allow women to be ‘regularly ordained’ as opposed to ‘irregularly ordained’ on January 1, 1977,” Brown remembers. So, Bishop [Robert] Kerr picked out the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, for my ordination.”
Not everyone was supportive. Brown remembers that both she and the Rev. Molly Bidwell, who was ordained on January 18, 1977, as the first female priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire, received death threats in the wake of their ordinations from an organization portraying itself as a defender of the “apostolic church.” “They sent death threats to us and to our families,” she says.
During her more than four decades as a priest in the diocese, Brown has served at St. Ann’s in Richford (now closed); Trinity in Milton (now closed); St. Matthew’s in Enosburg Falls; in an area ministry among St. James in Essex Junction, Calvary in Underhill, Trinity in Winooski (now closed), and the Colchester Mission (which became the present-day St. Andrew’s in Colchester). She also did supply and interim ministry at several parishes, including Holy Trinity in Swanton, St. John’s in Poultney and Good Shepherd in Barre. Including a supply stint from 1987 to 1994, she has served at Grace in Sheldon for more than 20 years.
“It’s been wonderful,” she says of her time in Sheldon. “It’s a gift. When I sense the love of God — and it’s very easy to sense at Grace Church — tears well up. As a psychologist practicing in Milton and Burlington for 29 years, I’m aware that tears are the welling up of feelings and most of this is gratitude for God’s love. Grace Church is a very loving community, and they “’love one another as I have loved you.’”