3 Sep

EWHP Co-Founder Joanna Gillespie talks with current President Nancy Radloff

In this September 2012 issue of Timelines, Nancy Radloff learns how Joanna Bowen Gillespie developed her passion for women’s history.

EWHP Co-Founder Joanna Gillespie, 2012

Her mother was “very bright, very dutiful and conforming, and always ready to please.”She loved to read and was “always” in a book club – and picking a thick, difficult book for her presentation. Joanna remembers when that book was Lin Yutang’s A Moment in Peking. Mrs. Bowen was very serious about practicing her reports in front of her family before the meetings. She also subscribed to “do-good” magazines and newsletters. She was the first in their community to know of the treatment of Jews by Nazi Germany in World War II, and she prayed for and supported the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., well before he became famous.

Music was very important to Joanna. She began taking piano lessons at the age of 4 because she could play by ear. She started playing the organ for services in her church at the age of 12.  After graduating from high school, Joanna became an organ student at Bluffton College, a Mennonite college (now university) in Ohio.

Joanna enjoyed college. After a relatively sheltered childhood in a country setting, Joanna got to know people from different backgrounds at Bluffton. She studied drama and was asked by the drama coach – a young man – to spend the summer after her sophomore year at a summer theater in the Wisconsin Dells. Joanna thought this sounded like great fun, but her parents disagreed; they did not want their daughter exposed to the wickedness of this type of environment!

Mennonites encouraged volunteerism in their young people, believing that these opportunities provided valuable life experiences. So, when Joanna’s mother read in Christian Century of a project that encouraged college volunteers to work in inner-city church-work projects, it sounded ideal.  The post-war period was the beginning of the suburbanization of American society; people were leaving the cities in droves for life in the suburbs, and many churches followed their congregations, and therefore Protestant city churches were struggling. 

The New York City Mission Society sponsored college students to run community programs that would “demystify” Protestant churches for inner-city residents, be of service in the communities, and attract new members. Joanna was assigned to put on plays with the local young people – in East Harlem, New York! This position offered a lot of new life experiences, and changed Joanna forever.

Joanna spent two summers volunteering in Harlem, and another young volunteer in her second summer there was David Gillespie, who had graduated with a degree in architecture from Yale University.  He and Joanna became close. However, summer ended and the two went back to their respective schools.

But Joanna missed her life and work in East Harlem, the larger horizon of work in New York City, and David. For perhaps the first time, she was able to raise serious questions about her Mennonite faith and its culture. After spending two summers working in an urban Protestant church with other volunteers, Joanna’s views changed. She was miserable at Bluffton and, after much discussion, her parents agreed to let her transfer to the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. 

Joanna and David had kept in touch through letters and phone calls, but it was easier for them to get together once she was on the East Coast. They announced their engagement in March 1951 at his parents’ home in Morristown, New Jersey. After finishing the year at Peabody, Joanna transferred back to Bluffton, took enough summer courses  to complete her degree, and graduated. She and David were married that autumn, on September 1, 1951. 

Their first home was in New Haven, Connecticut, where David was now a student at Yale Divinity School. David’s father was “cautious” about his son’s decision to become a minister instead of an architect, but David felt called to the ministry.  His father may have been equally unsettled that his son, raised a Presbyterian, planned to seek ordination in the Episcopal church, but David had sung in the local Episcopal church choir as a boy, and this was his spiritual home, the denomination he felt called to serve.

During his three years at Yale Divinity School, Joanna earned her master’s degree in organ and played for services in an Episcopal church in Bridgeport, CT.   The couple supplemented their income by running the International Student Center, which was a large house where students lived. Between Joanna’s salary as church musician, money loaned to the couple by David’s sister, and the international student house, they scraped by. After graduation, David was ordained by Bishop Angus Dun of the Diocese of Washington, DC.

David served churches in Washington, DC, Skaneateles, NY, and Englewood, NJ. Joanna, like so many other women, went where her husband’s career took them, finding her own niche in each new place.  At St. Alban’s in Washington, Joanna worked in the cathedral gift shop, sang in a professional cathedral choir, directed the children’s choir at St. Alban’s and, with David, experienced group process for clergy. In Skaneateles, she volunteered at the local library as a book mender, taught Sunday school, and cared for their two preschoolers.

It was in Englewood, though, that Joanna really came into her own. She became Assistant Director of Volunteers for desegregation programs in the public schools and went to graduate school at New York University. Realizing that being involved in the music program of her husband’s parish was increasingly difficult for both of them, Joanna turned her considerable energy to earning a PhD in Sociology of Education. After receiving her degree in 1973, she began teaching institutional sociology at Drew University, Madison, NJ.

In the late 1970s, David accepted a position in California as Dean of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Joanna went with him, but was unable to find a teaching position. So, she affiliated with the Center for Research on Women (now the Clayman Institute for Gender Research) at Stanford University and turned to writing. First, she specialized in 18th century women’s “pious memoirs,” the inner reflections of women on moral and religious matters, often published from their diaries.

Joanna went on to write numerous papers on Episcopal women and their church lives. Her books include The Vocation of Companionship [2006], The Life and Times of Martha Laurens Ramsay 1787-1811 [2001], and Women Speak – of God, Congregations, and Change [1995]. Her work was enhanced by a fellowship at the College of William and Mary, and opportunities to research women’s historical records in various locations.

With this love of history, story-telling, and the Episcopal Church, it’s no surprise that Joanna Bowen Gillespie was co-founder of the Episcopal Women’s History Project with Mary Donovan in 1980, “the true and first pioneer in Episcopal women’s life stories.”  With her keen intelligence and unflagging interest in history and in women in our church, Jo remains an inspiration to all who know her.

 — as described to Nancy Radloff, D.M.A., EWHP President

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