The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Friday, September 29, 1995             TAG: 9509270243
TYPE: Religion 
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   96 lines


WHEN THE REV. JANE F. Flaherty walked up to the pulpit of St. Christopher's Episcopal Church for the first time recently, she was taking a major step in her lifelong quest to serve God.

Flaherty also was making local history as the first permanent female rector of the Churchland parish. She began her ministry at St. Christopher's Sept. 1 and will be installed formally in a celebration of new ministry Oct. 8.

The new rector estimates that about 15 percent of the Episcopal clergy are female, but, based on the number of women enrolled in seminaries, that percentage will increase dramatically in the next decade.

``Just call me Jane,'' is how Flaherty deals with one of the first questions she usually faces, how to address a female priest. ``Some women use Mother or Reverend, but to me there is something wrong with almost every title you can give people, so I use Jane or for little children or people who are not comfortable without a precise title, `Reverend Jane,' '' she said.

Although Flaherty has known since high school that she would devote her life to God through a religious vocation, she never dreamed that she would become an Episcopal priest.

Born and raised a devout Roman Catholic, Flaherty joined the School Sisters of Notre Dame when she was 16 and was a nun for 10 years, teaching in several elementary and high schools in the St. Louis, Mo., area. A math major in college, she minored in music and put her talents to work as a math teacher and choir director.

When Flaherty joined the order in the mid-1950s, nuns still wore the very traditional black habits.

``It was a huge thing with a big starched wimple and yards of black serge all over you,'' she remembered with a laugh. A change to a more fitted, less cumbersome habit was just one of many changes Flaherty witnessed during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

``The mid-1960s were a time of turmoil in the world and in the church, `` she said, adding that Vatican II, the worldwide church council meeting opened by Pope John XXIII in 1962 to renew and update church doctrine, encouraged Roman Catholic clergy to think more on their own and influenced the young nun to take stock of her own life and work.

During that same time Flaherty, still in St. Louis, eagerly volunteered many hours in adult education and literacy training in one of the first high-rise, low-income housing projects built by the federal government. She became well acquainted with the residents of the vast project and vividly recalls the day John F. Kennedy was killed.

``They were devastated,'' she said. ``It was like their best friend had been killed.''

Feeling a pull toward a new direction, Flaherty left the order to become the coordinator of a federally funded adult education program that soon spread from just one small center in the housing project to a citywide program.

A yen to see the East Coast and an offer of a job in New Jersey brought Flaherty east and involved her more deeply in adult education. After finishing a doctorate in adult education at Rutgers University, Flaherty joined the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., as the administrator of their CLEP (College Level Examination Program). The CLEP program was designed to give adults college credits for knowledge they already had obtained somewhere other than a classroom.

Somewhat disillusioned with the bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church during the 1970s, Flaherty had drifted away from the church until she found a church home in an Episcopal Church in Princeton.

``It was a big decision for a Roman Catholic to join another church,'' she said.

As she was struggling to make that decision, one of the Episcopal priests approached her with the question: ``Have you ever felt called to be an Episcopal priest?''

The idea was so startling that Flaherty could not even answer.

Active in the lay ministry, Flaherty sang in the choir, served on the vestry, taught adult education, and developed and led a lay calling ministry - and all the while the thought of becoming a priest stayed with her.

When she was certain of her new direction, Flaherty entered seminary, earned a master of divinity degree in 1991 and became an assistant rector of a large Episcopal church in Moorestown, N.J., where she remained until she accepted the call to St. Christopher's.

As Flaherty stepped to the pulpit to deliver her first sermon, she looked out over the congregation sitting in the spacious sanctuary.

``It was awesome,'' she said. ``All that space and the people so optimistic and expecting so much.''

``I feel that the parish belongs to the people and I am here to serve the people,'' she said, adding that her first goal is to get to know the people. ``I want to experience the things that are important to them, the things they love about the parish and their ways of doing things and only then would I think about any changes,'' she said. ``It is not me, but the Lord who is going to do the work here.'' ILLUSTRATION: Staff photo by MARK MITCHELL

The Rev. Jane F. Flaherty is the new rector at St. Christopher's

Episcopal Church. She will be installed formally on Oct. 8.