I have just celebrated my 40th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. On occasion I endure good natured heckling from both clergy and laity because I almost always appear in public in clerical attire. I have a number of reasons for this, but one very important reason is that I made a promise to Vera McKay. Here is the story.
When I graduated from seminary, I was not in the process leading to ordination. I had several obstacles along the way, including finding that there was a moratorium on ordinations in the Diocese of Maine just before graduation. I had grown up on a farm and my wife and I decided to go to Aroostook County in Northern Maine, where land was cheap, and buy a farm. The rector of St. John’s in Presque Isle, Maine had under his care a small mission in Mars Hill, Maine. He asked me to help him with that ministry. I started out making pastoral visits with him and he soon had me preaching and assisting him with the services which were held on Saturday evenings.
With the rector’s encouragement I reentered the ordination process. I was accepted as a postulant, but with discernable ambivalence. I had good recommendations from my seminary, but the diocesan powers did not like that I had suddenly appeared at the end of a moratorium with a degree and under the wing of a conservative priest. I had not yet gotten a no, but I was not getting a yes to proceed in the ordination process. After what seemed like a very long limbo the Bishop of Maine came to St. Anne’s Mission in Mars Hill for his visitation. That is when Vera McKay cornered him.
Vera McKay was the matriarch of this parish. She was married to the manager of the local A&P grocery store and together they ran an old-fashioned boarding house which was the only place to stay in town. She was the fourth-grade teacher and the head of the Democratic Party in the town. Mars Hill was unusual in being a Democratic stronghold in those days. For many years, the Department of Education had wanted to remove Mrs. MacKay from her position as a teacher because she gave every single student in her class without an exception an A. Because of her political pull, the state never succeeded. Finally, when the mandatory age of retirement came, the authorities had the good sense to build a new wing for the elementary school and name it the Vera McKay wing. There was a big celebration and many of her former students came back to honor her. Among their ranks were doctors and lawyers, professors, stockbrokers and corporate executives. In the speeches that followed, student after student said something like, “Before I came to Mrs. McKay’s class, I was told that I was just another buckwheat eater [a poor French Canadian]. I didn’t think there would be a future for me, but Mrs. McKay gave me an A and told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and here I am and I would never have had the success in life that I have had without Mrs. McKay’s fourth grade class.”
Vera was very devout, a woman of deep prayer with a long prayer list. She was also very committed to St. Anne’s Mission. She did not think it proper that women serve on the Bishop’s Committee of the Mission, so every year she would take her jeep around to the fishing camps of the men in the parish and choose the senior warden and the junior warden. The senior warden was to light the furnace before services and to take care of interior repairs according to Vera’s extremely high standards, and the junior warden was to do the lawn mowing and take care of the outside of the building. Sometimes the men got word of her yearly expedition in advance and would try to be out on the lake in a boat when she came. She would patiently wait for them to come in, if necessary for hours. She quite literally would not take no for an answer.
When the bishop came for his visitation, Vera cornered him in the receiving line after the service. “Bishop, we like this young man very much and we want him to be our priest. What are you going to do about it?” It is hard to express the moral authority with which Vera expressed herself. My extreme embarrassment turned quickly to amazement as the bishop of Maine put up his hands and said, “Ok, Vera, I will take care of it.”
That Monday I got a call from the canon to the ordinary who told me that the bishop was recommending that I be approved for candidacy at the next standing committee meeting, and that I should put down a date six months after that for my ordination to the diaconate and should expect a date for ordination to the priesthood six months after that.
After I was ordained a priest, I was visiting with Vera, and I let her know that I believed that I would not have been ordained without her help.
“Promise me one thing,” she said. “Always dress like a priest.”
I did promise and I have been true to my promise.
The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany