The Rev. Jeannette Piccard, First Woman Priest in the Episcopal Church

The Rev. Guy Drake

The Rev. Jeannette Piccard, First Woman Priest in the Episcopal Church

In these next few weeks we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church.  I have an intense interest in this commemoration because of an unforgettable experience that I had with one of the Philadelphia 11 women very shortly after her ordination to the priesthood.  The eleven women were ordained priests at the Church of the Advocate, Philadelphia, on the feast of St. Mary and St. Martha, July 29, 1974, two years before the ordination of women was approved at the General Convention in 1976.

In the fall of 1974 I attended a Cursillo retreat weekend in St. Paul. I ended up sitting at a discussion table for three days in a group that included one of the Philadelphia 11, Dr. Jeannette Piccard. I recognized her name from conversations with my grandma Weld discussing her group of friends.  I introduced myself to Jeannette, and she burst out with, “You are Fay Weld’s grandson??? She was the best friend I ever had in my whole life.”  Jeannette was 79 then, and my grandma had died five years earlier. Both of their families attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Lake of the Isles.  My grandma was the first woman vestry member in the history of St. Paul’s.  You can see why they gravitated towards each other in those days of utter male domination of everything. Jeannette was just coming off of the bruising experience of her ordination, and she opened up to me about the extreme hurt she experienced from the brutal words of bishops and priests that she regarded highly, as they condemned her and the other ten women who had been ordained.  Her heartfelt words led me to believe ever since then that Jeannette was a martyr for the ordination of women, something that we now take completely for granted, especially where I serve at St. David’s, Minnetonka under Katherine Lewis’s steady leadership. Jeannette may not have sacrificed her life, but she certainly sacrificed pieces of her soul in her ordination journey.

And who was Dr. Jeannette Piccard? She was one of the premier scientists of the first half of the 20th Century.  Piccard studied philosophy and psychology at Bryn Mawr College, where in 1916 she wrote an essay titled "Should Women Be Admitted to the Priesthood of the Anglican Church?"  She received her bachelor's degree in 1918 and went on to study organic chemistry at the University of Chicago, receiving her master's degree in 1919. That same year she met and married Jean Felix Piccard, who was teaching at the university.  Between the two of them they led the earliest human explorations of outer space via high-altitude balloons.

On the day that they set the world altitude record, forty-five thousand spectators came to see the Piccards off on October 23, 1934. Jeannette piloted the balloon and Jean conducted the scientific research. They reached 57,579 feet (17,550 m) or about 10.9 miles (17.5 km) up, travelled for eight hours on a journey over Lake Erie, and landed about 300 miles (480 km) away For comparison, modern commercial airliners cruise between about 6 and 8 miles above sea level, and the Concorde supersonic jet carried passengers at between 9 and 11 miles.

The Piccards taught at the University of Lausanne from 1919 to 1926. In 1926 they returned to the United States, where Jean Piccard taught organic chemistry at MIT. The couple lived in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania before settling in Minneapolis in 1936 when Jean Piccard joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota. Jeannette Piccard received a doctorate in education from the University of Minnesota in 1942.

In 1971, one year after the Episcopal Church admitted female deacons, Piccard was ordained a deacon and, on July 29, 1974, at age 79, under controversial circumstances, she was ordained a priest.[43] In Philadelphia, at the Church of the Advocate, three retired bishops ordained eleven women priests, cheered by a large congregation. All eleven women risked suspension as deacons, and the bishops "could be suspended or deposed by a church trial court" for ignoring a church canon prohibiting retired bishops from performing "episcopal acts" unless asked by a local bishop. Five Episcopal priests objected at the point in the service when Corrigan asked if there was "any impediment" to the ordinations, one calling the ordinations a "perversion" and another calling them "unlawful and schismatical.”

Jeannette Piccard was the first of the women to be ordained that day, because at 79 she was the oldest, and because she was fulfilling an ambition she had had since she was 11 years old. Suzanne Hiatt, another of the 11, later said "In retrospect, to have been ordained 'irregularly' is the only way for women to have done it.  When asked by Bishop John Allin, the head of the church, not to proceed with the ceremony, Jeannette is said to have told him, "Sonny, I'm old enough to have changed your nappies."

Jeannette’s extraordinary contributions to the history of women in the United States includes:

  • The first licensed female balloon pilot in the U.S.
  • The first woman to fly to the stratosphere
  • Co-inventor of the stratospheric plastic balloon
  • Consultant to NASA
  • The first woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest in the U.S.

During the 1980s, Gene Roddenberry named Captain Jean-Luc Picard in the TV Series “Star Trek Next Generation” after Jeannette’s husband Jean Piccard.

Thanks be to God for the life, ministry, and witness of the Rev. Jeannette Piccard!