Helen Havens

Interviewees: Helen M. Havens
IWY TX 217
Interviewer: Kathie J. Carter
Date: November 27, 1977

Helen Havens, of Houston, Texas, was part of the local group in the city working on interfaith services and worship opportunities for National Women’s Conference participants. She was 42. Havens’ group included Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Orthodox, and Bahá’í women. She was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1977, after six years of study. Interview includes discussion of her views that women in religious leadership are part of the women’s movement, how participants in the conference reacted positively to meeting women clerics, and the reactions of women to taking communion from women priests for the first time. Havens also discussed her difficulties becoming ordained and how supportive her family was during the process.

Sound Recording


Kathie J. Carter: Houston, Texas, 11-27-77. International Women’s Year.

(Pause in tape at 0:09) Would you please give us your name and address?

Helen M. Havens: My name is Helen M. Havens. And my home address is 2401 Dryden Road, Houston, Texas. 77030. Phone number is 665-0710.

KC: Miss Havens, what brought you to the conference?

HH: I live in Houston, and I have been part of the group working for several months to prepare for this conference. Particular area that I work in is the religious area. And one of our activities was to plan an interfaith worship service, involving Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Orthodox, and Bahá’í women. We have been meeting for several months to get to know one another, and to plan a corporate worship service, which we just put on twice this morning in the Rothko Chapel at Sul Ross and Yupon, near St. Thomas University campus.

In addition to the worship service, we have sponsored a kumbaya room, a “come by here”; a place of sort of refuge, solace, comfort for those who are weary, or unhappy, about the events or the conference, or just things in their personal lives. We know that, at large gatherings, there is a need for that kind of pastoral care. So, I’ve been involved in that.

And, as a further extension of that, we were asked, just three or four days ago, to set up an observer system to cover the entire conference area with observers at all times, to report a monitoring kind of system, to help to create order, and a sensible kind of atmosphere for the conference.

KC: Are you interested in the women’s movement, and, if so, how did you become interested in that?

HH: Yes, I am interested in the women’s movement, and I often wondered why I didn’t sort of become specifically a leader in a local NOW chapter or that kind of thing. It was after I began to understand the call that I felt I had from God to serve in the ordained ministry of the Episcopal church that I began to understand perhaps why I hadn’t become involved in the organizational aspect of the women’s movement, because the last half-a-dozen years, I have been going to seminary, and taking other training to prepare myself for the priesthood in the Episcopal church. And I was ordained to that in April of this year, here in Houston. So all of my energies have really gone into this preparation for, and now the acting out of, my ministry.

But it really goes hand-in-hand with the women’s movement, because, just as we need women who are doctors and lawyers, we also need women who are ministers, and priests. And so I feel that I am a part of the movement, and, in addition to the two services we did this morning at the Rothko Chapel, I was invited by the dean of the Episcopal cathedral to celebrate. So I’ve just come from yet a third church service today, in which many women told me afterwards that they’d received communion from a woman for the first time, and it was tremendously meaningful for them.

And, so, I know that I am a part of the women’s movement by working in my specific area of religion. And even just being present here, I can be identified by my clerical collar. And so many people stop me and ask me what this means and if I am a minister. And one woman told me this morning, after one of the services at the Rothko Chapel, she was crying, and she said, “Different people find their faith at different times, but I found mine this morning.” And, so, I know that we all participate in the women’s movement in our individual ways. You do, I do. We all do.

KC: What kind of struggles did you have to go through in order to be ordained as an Episcopalian priest?

HH: Well, it was extremely difficult when I first began my journey in 1971, here at Houston. Houston wasn’t ready, and hadn’t heard about it. And I went through a screening process, such as men go through, and was told that I was emotionally disturbed and in need of extensive therapy. And this was devastating. We didn’t think it was true. But that almost blocked me. As it turned out, I continued ahead without the official approval of the bishop here, going to seminary. My husband is very supportive. And, of course, we paid my way ourselves, and made all of the arrangements ourselves, so that I did end up with all of the training, the field work, and the clinical pastoral education, and hospital, and the three years of seminary that one needs to be ordained.

And, of course, I had help and support along the way, from some wonderful people here, or I would not have continued. But it was very difficult, when I felt that so many people were against me. And then, when I had finished all of this training, we kept hoping against hope the bishop here would ordain me, and he continued to say no. So then we had to find another bishop, and we did. And Bishop Trelease in New Mexico, called the Dioses of the Rio Grande. And he ordained me to the diaconate. And he also was the one who ordained me to the priesthood, although he came to Houston to do it. We were very grateful that the bishop here, Bishop Richardson, allowed him to come and ordain me here, and Bishop Richardson also, at my request, participated in the service. So he participated in the examination, and in the laying on of hands, and we con-celebrated the Eucharist: the rector of Saint Francis church, where I work, the two bishops, and myself. Bishop Richardson’s support was very necessary and very, very welcome to us. So I feel that I do now have his support.

I’m employed full-time in a large parish, and have a wonderful job, a wonderful parish. And I have more work than I can do, partly because I am the only woman priest for hundreds of miles. And many people turn to me. I, of course, also have duties at the church, which keep me very busy. I’m in charge of Christian education, both for young people and adults. In addition, I do all the services of the church, the Sunday morning worship, the morning prayer, holy communion, baptisms, weddings, funerals. I counsel those who seek me out, and visit the sick, and attend all the vestry meetings and other meetings that clergy attend, and am increasingly being invited to speak and to celebrate communion at other churches. So other churches are having an opportunity to experience what it means to have a women priests. And I feel that there is a growing acceptance on the part of people here in Texas. And I’m very grateful. I feel that it is evidence that it is the will of God that women be priests today, and that, in fact, laywomen increased their ministry in the church and in the world, as well. I used to say, before I was ordained, that I was going right on with my work. And, if it was not of God, as the Bible tells us, we’ll wither away and die. But if it is of God, we’ll flourish. And I find it flourishing, and proof that this was meant to be, in this day and time. And I feel the same way about the Equal Rights Amendment, and the plan that is being voted upon here in the IWY conference.

Last night was extraordinary, in which the ERA was considered on the floor. And I feel the same kind of growing support and awareness on the part of women, and men, in our society, that I have felt in the church. I feel that same kind of support for women’s rights in our society as a whole.

KC: Would you share with me some of your background, like the kind of family you grew up in, and the things you did before you began seminary?

HH: I was born on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and had an idyllic childhood, playing on the beach, in the sand and the sun with my brother, who was two years older. My daddy was principal of the school in Edgartown, and it was a very happy childhood. Daddy went into the service in the Second World War, and he was chosen to head the helicopter training program when they first began helicopters, because he was an educator, went to the Sikorsky factory, and took all the training, and stayed with helicopters until he retired. So this made us move around the country, to Indiana, to Illinois, and then to Texas. And Texas was an ideal climate for helicopters.

So, we lived in several places in Texas. And my older brother came to Rice, here in Houston for college. And I followed him, and spent four years here, getting my B.A. in English, and met my husband here also. Then we went to graduate school at Indiana University, and I got my master’s in English there. Then we lived in the oil fields of west Texas, where he’s from.

And I found that was a marvelous part of my education, having come from Massachusetts.

Then we went to New York and he worked in theater. That is his field. And we came back to Houston. And he teaches at Rice University, and directs the drama program there. And we have children, and, as they began to grow up a little bit, I found myself drawn more and more deeply into the life of the church. I had, one summer when I was in college, done a summer’s training, such as seminarians do, and had done very well and loved it. But, back in the mid-fifties, it wasn’t possible for women to be ordained. So I had to sort of let that lie fallow for the intervening years. And then, as my children began to grow up a little bit, that interest, which had been there earlier, began to erupt, and grow, and I finally came to the realization that I was called to the ordained ministry of the church.

KC: You mentioned earlier that your husband had been very supportive of you. How about your friends and your children?

HH: My children have been. My son, when he was seven – he’s now twelve – somebody turned to him and said, “Mark, what do you think about your mother becoming a priest?” And he said, “Oh, I think it’s great.” And they couldn’t imagine why he was beaming, and they said, “Why, Mark?” And he said, “I can introduce her: This is my mother, Father Havens.” (Laughs) And, so, they have, they know that they have had a part to play in all this, because it’s meant some sacrifice on their part. And I worked very, very actively in the whole political struggle. And this meant I had to travel a great deal. I was president of the Episcopal Women’s Caucus, I was a regional organizer for the National Coalition for the Women’s Ordination of the Priesthood and Episcopacy. When we had our general convention last year to vote on this, in which we voted on the question of women’s ordination in St. Paul, Minneapolis, I was asked to be in charge of all women who came to the general convention, caring about women’s ordination. So I have tremendous responsibilities. I was on the Today program, two days before general convention opened, speaking on behalf of women’s ordination.

And so my family . . . I’ve been going to school, and studying hard, and then, on top of it, this political activity took me away from home. And, so, they miss me. And I was always glad that the children didn’t mind saying so. They would just gripe if I’d been gone a lot, and that’s how they were feeling. But they feel proud that they have been a part of all of this, and that they have made a contribution. They were in both my ordinations: to the diaconate and the priesthood, carrying up the bread and wine at the time of the offertory. And, very lovely.

My parents initially were amazed. I don’t know if “horrified” is correct. That may be too strong. But very surprised. My mother has said she wasn’t sure if she would be in favor of women’s ordination if I had not become a priest. She’s in her sixties, late sixties, and very traditional. She’s been senior warden of the church in Edgartown for six years now, so she herself is deeply committed to the church. And they have become very supportive of me, and it was wonderful to have them in Houston in April for my ordination to the priesthood. It was a tremendously exciting moment for all of us, and I was so grateful that they were able to share it with me. And have some beautiful pictures, and the complete video tape of the entire service, and so a wonderful thing to have.

My husband has been unbelievably supportive. I really don’t know if I could have or would have continued in the struggle if he had not been. But he simply has been, because he believes that women should be ordained, number one, and he thinks that I should be ordained, number two. And so he gave a great deal. He helped with the children and he helped with the housework a great deal. We are fortunate in that his schedule allows him to do this, in a way that many men’s schedules do not, simply because they leave early in the morning for work and don’t get back until late at night. His work, a large part of it takes place in the evening, and he directs his place. So he was quite available by day, particularly to be with the children, and to run errands, and pick them up at school if they were sick. That kind of thing. And, so, it’s been tremendous to have that kind of support from him. I married him because I loved him, not dreaming that I would, at that time, end up being ordained. And I might have married a man who either couldn’t or wouldn’t have been supportive. But it so happens that I married one who has been. [laughs].

KC: . . . his parents?

HH: His parents are very kind, and, I think, very appreciative. It was, perhaps, a little mystifying to them; they’re Texans, and, perhaps, the Southern culture dictates a little bit more than the Northern culture that a woman’s place is in the home, so I think it was probably . . . they’re so lovely, though, they don’t really say this. I think it was probably a little bit hard for them, and they probably worried about our marriage, and the strain that my doing this work and being the first woman in this area. I’m sure they worried. But now that they see that they see that we’re a family that’s strong and healthy, they’re relaxed now. And they’re very proud, too.

KC: Do any of your children have any thoughts about going into the priesthood?

HH: I don’t think so. Our daughter is fourteen, our son is twelve. And Julie is a fiercely and wonderfully independent girl, who has her own philosophy in theology. She would tell you she’s not Christian. Yet, this year, she’s teaching the three-year-old Sunday School class, which is a great blessing for me, because most mothers of three-year-olds really want to go to church themselves and not have to take the class. Julie teaches it every single Sunday without fail, and is very loyal to that. She was elected an officer in the young people’s group, the EYC, and is very excited about that. And, riding home in the car that night, she said, “Mommy, I guess I’m like you after all.” And was just thrilled, because she is a ninth grader, and she beat out two older girls for the office. And so – she didn’t tell me this, she told somebody else this – that she intended to get her first degree in religious studies. Philosophy and religious studies. And then another degree in biology. So I don’t know what that first degree in religious studies might mean. At the moment, she’s very much her own person. And I’m very proud of her for being that, and for not, you know, imitating me at all.

And our son is just a very typical, healthy boy. Very interested in football, and all sports. And trains, and music, and pets: he has snakes, and mice, and a parrot, and a dog. And it never seems to end. So, it’s hard to say what . . . Mark doesn’t at the moment aspire to the ministry of the church.

KC: Is the conference meeting your expectations?

HH: Yes, I think it is. I have been working here in this building, and I have not been in the coliseum proper. But I was able to watch a good bit of the proceedings last night on television. So, I feel first of all there’s a very good spirit, and that first of all the disruptions many of us had feared really haven’t taken place, have been small incidents, but nothing of a major nature. And I feel that the prevailing spirit is so positive. And I love the mixture of women, from old to young, and from blue jeans to elegantly-dressed women. And they all seem to get along very happily, and be accepting of each other. There’s such a diversity of people here. And the fact that all of these people wanted to come to Houston to participate in this is extraordinary. So, it is living up to my expectations. And I guess I just have faith that the great majority of the planks, or the parts of the platform, will be passed in resolution form. And I haven’t heard anything to the contrary, so I will continue to hope that that is so.

KC: I’m interested in the kumbaya place that you were asked to organize, and set up, and help staff. What kind of usage, if we can do that without a breach of confidentiality, have you found, and how have women used that?

HH: I haven’t, for instance, I haven’t been up there today, and so I’m a little reluctant to give the definitive answer. As of yesterday, I feel that not many people really had availed themselves of the really pastoral aspects of it. In other words, I don’t think very many women have come there in tears, or really distraught. But we have talked with a great number of people, we’ve told them about the services that we’ve planned for today. And so, I hope we’ve been a welcoming presence, and also an affirming presence in terms of womanhood, and in terms of the underlying principles of this conference. I think just our quiet confidence in the rightness of the conference lends a great deal to what’s going on here, and helps, perhaps, take away some of the more flamboyant demonstrations that are seen. So I feel it’s a very important witness to make. Many people say that some church groups are not in favor of abortion, or various other aspects of the conference. And so we feel it’s important to witness, to our underlying beliefs in the conference.

KC: Were any other denominations included, and women ministers from those denominations, in the kumbaya?

HH: Yes. As we had women who are Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox, Jews, and members of the Bahá’í faith participating in the service at the Rothko Chapel this morning. These same women, and others from their churches and synagogues, have been participating in the kumbaya room. Specifically, Sara Seeker is a Presbyterian ordained minister, and she has been extremely active in the whole program. And Sister Frances Klinger, as a nun involved in pastoral ministry. She has a full-time job not unlike mine. She’s also going to seminary, and hopes to be ordained in the Roman Catholic Church, one day. So, we’ve had a good mixture of people. Been great to work with them.

KC: This is a historical document that we’re doing here. Is there anything that you’d like to add, to go into the archives?

HH: One of my girlfriends was saying this morning, “Helen, we’re making so much history.” We were together at general convention last year, and that was an extraordinary moment, when we stood and, for five minutes of silence prayer, before the vote on women’s ordination, and to know that history was being made in that vote, that did say yes to women’s ordination, the same thing is true of this conference. This is the first conference of this sort has ever been held. And so I do live in the knowledge that history is being made. We have a part to play, and that it’s tremendously important that we all work our utmost, and play the parts that we have to play. And for me, this is just sort of an extension and enrichment of my ministry. I feel that my ministry is hand-in-hand with the principles of this conference. I feel that liberation is one of the major aspects of the gospel message. I feel that no one is free until all are free. So I’m a deep believer in liberation theology, which is a current theology today, which speaks of the liberation of women, the liberation of Jews, the liberation of all races, and the liberation of the poor people of the third world. And we have tremendous work to do. We are doing a large part of that work here in Houston at this conference. And we will go out from here and continue in that work in the days ahead.

KC: Thank you very much. For the record, they’ve asked for statistical purposes, may I ask your age?

HH: Yes, I’m forty-two.

KC: Thank you very much.

End of Interview