First woman to be elected Episcopal Bishop of Central New York visits Watertown
WATERTOWN — When the Very Rev. DeDe Duncan-Probe was fresh out of the seminary, she visited her childhood parish where her parents still attended church. In her clerical collar as a newly ordained Episcopal priest, she headed to the front of the church to take communion with the others when the usher, her sixth-grade Sunday school teacher, stopped her in her tracks. “Oh, I’m sorry, DeDe, I don’t think so today,” the usher said with a look to the parish priest, who was shaking his head.
At that moment, her mother, parish secretary for 26 years, stepped in to ask why they were stopping her daughter.
“I received Eucharist that morning not because I was born in that church and baptized and confirmed at that particular altar, or because I had been ordained as a deacon, or because I had taken vows as a priest. I received communion because I was with my mom and he couldn’t say no to her,” the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe said. “That had a profound impact on me in terms of welcoming people to the church.”
As of her ordination and consecration Dec. 3, the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe will become the first female bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York. Elected in August, she previously served as rector of St. Peter’s in the Woods Episcopal Church in Fairfax Station, Va. She has four degrees, including a doctorate in philosophy in theology from Oxford University and a master’s in psychology from Pepperdine University.
The Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe visited Watertown for a day on Tuesday as a part of her tour of churches and parishes in her new diocese. She values seeing the work of congregations in person. While visiting Watertown she met with a knitting group that makes hats for babies, cancer patients and others.
Despite her qualifications, not everyone has taken kindly to women in the priesthood.
“There are places where having a female priest is still not the norm, but we are making progress. There are still places where people say, ‘I want to get a real priest, not a woman.’ It’s more subtle; it’s a little bit more difficult to address people’s attitudes sometimes, actually,” the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe said. “It’s significant that I’m the first woman who will be bishop, but it’s also sad in a way that it’s newsworthy. (Women are) still the exception, not the rule.”
When the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe stepped into Trinity Episcopal Church on Sherman Street, the 126-year-old church with its high, arched ceilings and dark wood beams looked ready to engulf the petite blonde woman. Instead, it seems to frame her, a woman who can hold her own and make even the most austere church her home.
The Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe has high hopes for the work, such as feeding and clothing ministries, being done by the diocese and its flock.
“I believe it means much for the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York to elect its first woman. ... It speaks volumes about her that she was in fact chosen so quickly by the diocese to assume the role of bishop here. It has been long in coming for the Christian church to recognize the legitimate role women have, in and for the church’s leadership,” said the Rev. John Crosswaite, rector of Christ Church in Clayton and St. John’s Church in Cape Vincent, and dean of the North Country District. “I think Bishop-Elect DeDe will have a profound impact in spoken and unspoken ways. She is delightful, bright, articulate and funny. I personally look forward to working with her and welcoming her to the congregations of the North Country District and their people.”
As a child, the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe could never serve as an acolyte. She says her life could be viewed as a marker for the way women have progressed in the Episcopal Church.
“The first time I served as an acolyte I was in my mid-30s in seminary. It was this moment of profound change for me where I started to see myself as a whole Christian in a way, where I could follow God’s call and be in his ministry,” she said.
The Rev. Susan Hartzell was the associate rector under the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe at St. Peter’s in the Woods in Virginia. The Rev. Ms. Hartzell calls her colleague inspiring.
“She is smart and funny and has this innate ability to connect with people from all walks of life. I learned so much from her about leadership in the church. Like how to empower people ... how to walk with people through joyful and difficult times,” the Rev. Ms. Hartzell said. “She’s a natural leader who will come alongside people and their ministries, support and encourage them and inspire them to stretch in ways that will help the church continue to grow and flourish.”
According to the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe, relationships with all people are the key to the church staying relevant to modern lives. She says the Episcopal parish is diverse, home to both conservative and liberals folks, with no two people believing exactly the same thing.
“What unites us is our love of Jesus Christ, worship and serving others. It’s not necessary for us to agree on everything, and I think in the civic scape we’ve lost the ability as a society to disagree and remain in a relationship,” the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe said. “Real love is a man on the cross, real love is a wife taking care of her aging husband or vice versa, real love is a parent who has never approved of homosexuality embracing their child and saying, ‘I need to love you more than I need to judge you.’ There will always be hurdles in the human condition; it’s part of our brokenness ... We need to be more interested in listening than being right, more interested in loving than getting our own way.”
One of her first goals is to establish Q centers to support LGBTQ teens and youth in a vulnerable time in their lives. She says leaving people out or behind is the first step in becoming an “old dinosaur.”
Speaking of dinosaurs, she also says that at the Episcopal Church, minds are not checked at the door. As an intellectual she takes great comfort in knowing that she doesn’t have to abandon her scientific curiosity to worship and have faith. To the Rev. Ms. Duncan-Probe, diversity is embracing climate change, DNA and genetics, not having to choose between beliefs.
“You have this very rich history of stained glass and stone, but then you have this revolutionary heart,” she said. “Whether we will be relevant or irrelevant comes down to our love and our service and our willingness to be wrong at times.”