1977: "Beryl Choi, the first woman ordained a priest in Pittsburgh’s episcopal diocese”
The year was 1944 when Beryl Choi, an 18-year-old woman living in Chester, England, told her local Episcopal bishop that she believed she had a vocation to the priesthood.
He replied that church law prohibited the ordination of women but encouraged her to study religious education.
So, the young English woman earned degrees in theology and religious education from the University of London. She taught religion for 10 years at a school for girls in Liverpool and also instructed seminarians. In 1962, she married a Korean nuclear scientist and the couple moved to Philadelphia, settling a few years later in Pittsburgh.
Early in the 1970s, she made history by becoming the first woman ordained a deacon in Pittsburgh’s episcopal diocese. Not everyone was pleased but the Rev. William C. Lewis, Arch deacon of Trinity Cathedral, remarked that, “Anyone who thinks women are inferior has not met Beryl Choi.”
On a Sunday in January of 1977, at age 50, she became the first woman to join the ranks of priests in Pittsburgh’s Episcopal diocese. The Right Rev. Ralph Appleyard officiated at the ordination service in Downtown’s Trinity Cathedral.
Even now, at age 87, the Rev. Beryl Choi recalled in a recent telephone interview “the absolute wonder of it all. I was accompanied in that ordination by several young men” plus a group of young, supportive deacons.
Her peers told her in advance that if anyone spoke against her ordination during the service, “They were going to throw whistles and stamp and shout. That was the support I got from that group. They were wonderful,” she recalled in that perfectly articulated British accent that makes people who hear it secretly wish they had been born in England. (Rev. Choi was born in the same month and year as Queen Elizabeth II.)
The drive to ordain women had gathered momentum three years earlier. On July 29, 1974, Deacon Beryl Choi had watched as three retired Episcopal bishops ordained took the radical step of ordaining eleven women in Philadelphia. But, she waited patiently until church leaders approved the ordination of women at a convention in 1976.
Today, the leader of the Episcopal Church is the Most Rev. Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori.
As for the Rev. Beryl Choi, after serving at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside, she was in ministry in Long Beach, Calif. for two years, then spent a decade in Buffalo, N.Y.
Now retired, she lives in Richmond, Va., near her daughter, Nan.
“Many parishes these days don’t care if it’s a man or a woman as long as it’s someone they like and will do the job,” Rev. Choi said.
The Rev. Leslie Reimer, interim rector at Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside, said in a telephone interview that Rev. Choi served as her role model.
“She was very smart and wise and asked challenging questions. She was breaking ground that was very new for everyone.”
The Rev. Choi, “changed people’s minds because they experienced her as someone with a genuine vocation as a priest, as a pastor, as a teacher. When people encounter someone who is authentic and genuine and forgiving, it tends to melt those barriers,” Rev. Reimer said.