First Deaf Woman Priest Ordained

Episcopal News Service. July 28, 1988 [88166]

NEW YORK (DPS, July 28) -- On June 17, at St. Stephen's Church in Philadelphia, the Rev. Virginia Nagel communicated vows, made promises, and blessed the congregation -- through use of sign language -- and in so doing became the first deaf woman priest in the Episcopal Church.

On September 1, she will become vicar at Ephphatha Parish, a cluster of six deaf congregations in the Diocese of Central New York. There her duties will be the same as those of any other parish priest: celebrating the Eucharist, officiating at baptisms, weddings, and funerals, counseling, parish visiting, and teaching.

Deaf since a bout with spinal meningitis at the age of five, Nagel, 48, is married and has raised three children.

She graduated from high school in New York at age 16, and majored in biochemistry at Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C. Work as a cardiac technician at the Veteran's Hospital in Albany led to intense interaction with patients, classes in death and dying, and spiritual direction at Holy Cross Monastery in New York.

And then tragedy struck. After a move to Philadelphia, her oldest son died in his sleep at the age of 22, suffocating during an epileptic seizure. Soon after that, her husband had a small stroke; a year later brought a more serious one.

"I found myself thinking a lot about loss and life and death, about what was really important and what was not," she said.

Such thinking was reinforced by active participation at All Souls' Church, a church for the deaf in Philadelphia. Eventually she found herself fighting against what she perceived as God's call to the priesthood.

"I didn't want any part of it at first," she said. "But I knew that's what God was asking. And if you promise to follow Christ as your Lord and Savior, how can you say no when he asks something of you?"

Since her ordination to the diaconate in November 1986, Nagel has worked as a deacon at All Souls' and as a chaplain at the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf.

Her biggest fear about her new job has nothing to do with deafness. Rather, she hopes that she will be accepted as a woman priest.

"People may be afraid to give me the chance to show that I can be a pastor. The tough part will be getting people to recognize that I can do everything, even if I wear a skirt."

Since the first deaf deacon, Henry Winter Syle, was ordained in Philadelphia in 1876, approximately 55 deaf clergy have entered holy orders. Some 80 congregation in 26 dioceses now work specifically with the deaf.