I started saying about 12 years ago I wanted to become a priest,” recalls Jacqueline Means, 40. “People thought I was crazy.” The nay-sayers included her husband, Delton. “We had a lot of fights over her going into the ministry,” he admits. “But like my truck driving, this is something she’s got to do.”
On New Year’s Day, with Delton acting as a lay presenter, Jackie Means was ordained the first official female Episcopal priest in the U.S. since the church opened its priesthood to women last September. Fifteen who were “irregularly” ordained in 1974 and 1975 will be recognized this month.
Not all Episcopalians are pleased. At the ordination, when Bishop Donald J. Davis asked for objections to Means’s investiture, a protester read a statement calling it “an act of heresy.” Elsewhere, the Rev. James Mote of Denver, whose St. Mary Church became the first to secede, says, “It’s no more possible to ordain women into the priesthood than for men to have babies.”
Means has never let opposition worry her. A licensed practical nurse who has studied since 1972 at two Indianapolis seminaries, she was named the first woman deacon in the state in 1974. Two disgruntled families promptly quit the congregation.
Her four children are bemused by all the fuss. “I think the old lady’s crazy for doing it,” says Debby, 18, with a grin, but adds, “She always finds time for us. She doesn’t cram religion down our throats.” Delton Jr., 13, nicknamed Beenie, answers the phone these days, “Heaven. God speaking.”
Mrs. Means will be priest associate at All Saints Church as well as institutional chaplain for the Indianapolis diocese. Inmates at Indiana Women’s Prison, where she has counseled for four years, call her “Mother Means,” but her proper title is the Reverend Mrs. Jacqueline Means.
Father John Roof, chaplain at the prison, says admiringly of his 5’5″ colleague, “Jackie’s a dynamo in Big Mama pantyhose.” The inmates agree. “She’s my best friend,” says a lifer. When one woman confided, “You know I’m gay,” Means responded, “So what? You don’t ask who I’m sleeping with. I won’t ask who you’re sleeping with.”
Means grew up a Roman Catholic in Peoria, Ill. “The nun was my idol,” she remembers. She needed one, for her parents were alcoholics living on welfare. At 16, Jackie married Delton, and in time they mutually chose the Episcopal Church. Delton, who drives an interstate truck, had a bad highway accident in 1963. Suddenly Jackie was forced to look at herself as an untrained, unschooled mother of three small children. “What would I have done if he had been killed?” she wondered, and shortly afterward began an educational blitz. She graduated from high school in 1968 at age 32 and later attended Indiana University.
A woman of volcanic energy, Means “sometimes puts people off with her power and lack of tact,” a co-worker notes. The new priest hopes to establish a halfway house for women released from prison and in time to become more than a symbol of iconoclasm. “The church has become ingrown, parochial and comfortable,” Means says. “We’re too concerned about bricks and mortar.” As she once asked, “Who cares if the parish house has drapes and silver if kids need food and clothing?”