“All the strands in my life had come together. Descendant of slave and of slave owner, I had already been called poet, lawyer, teacher, and friend. Now I was empowered to minister the sacrament of One in whom there is no north or south, no black or white, no male or female—only the spirit of love and reconciliation drawing us all toward the goal of human wholeness.” 3
As “The Priest” Pauli Murray faces the camera with confidence, arms open wide in warm welcome and clad in her deep purple Chasuble. She was born to Agnes Fitzgerald and William Murray in Baltimore in 1910. They baptized her in their church, St. James’, the South’s first Episcopal Church established and led by African Americans. She grew up in the church her aunts helped to found, St. Titus’ Episcopal in Durham, North Carolina. She was confirmed at age 9 by Right Reverend Henry B. Delany, the Suffragan Bishop for Colored Work in North Carolina. She later visited Delany on his deathbed where he deemed her “a child of destiny.” Murray wanted to become an acolyte at an early age, but this was not allowed because she was female.
Pauli Murray’s frustration with the patriarchy in the Episcopal Church grew as she began identifying as a feminist. In her autobiography, she tells of sitting in a service at St. Mark’s in New York City in 1966 and then storming out, stung by the painful awareness that only men could serve as clergy. Murray wrote intimately about her decision to pursue ordination into the Episcopalian Priesthood. In 1955 when her Aunt Pauline died and later in 1973, when Irene Barlow, her life partner, passed away, Murray stepped in to offer Christian ministry, coming “face to face” with her own mortality. It was a profound and life changing experience for her. As she remembered, “the thought of ordination became unavoidable…[and] burst into my consciousness…[I was] unable to eat or sleep as I struggled against it.”
Pauli Murray was ordained the first African American woman Episcopal priest in 1977 at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. She offered her first Eucharist in the Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the same church in which her grandmother was baptized a slave 123 years earlier. Murray served as pastor to two churches, the Church of Atonement in Washington D.C. and the Church of the Holy Nativity in Baltimore, Maryland before retiring at the age of 72. The Episcopal Church has officially recognized her in their listing of exemplary Christians, Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints in July of 2012.
3 Pauli Murray, Song in a Weary Throat: An American Pilgrimage (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1987), 435.