Woman priested ‘behind bars’

By on February 1, 2004

Anne Moats Willams signs the declaration of faith and obedience at her ordination inside Anamosa State Penitentiary.

When Bishop Alan Scarfe came to Anamosa, Iowa, to ordain Anne Moats Williams to the priesthood, he went to the State Penitentiary instead of St. Mark’s Episcopal church.

Although Ms. Williams is a long-time resident of the town and member of St. Mark’s, the congregation from which she was called to the priesthood is incarcerated. She believes hers is not only the first ordination “inside the walls,” but also among the first where inmates were part of the discernment process.

Ms. Williams’ ordination took place in the prison chapel, a large hall with folding chairs for 65 inmates and 30 visitors.

As the procession formed, three singers and the organist, all inmates, took their places for the opening hymn. An inmate read the Old Testament lesson and the organist chanted the litany.

The moment of consecration was especially moving. As Ms. Williams knelt before the bishop, clergy and members of her discernment team, Bishop Scarfe beckoned her congregation to join in the laying on of hands. About a dozen of the inmates came forward. Soon the only thing visible was the tip of the bishop’s red miter above the sea of hands stretching forward.

Over the years, Ms. Williams, 56, said she thought about being ordained but she said, “I could never visualize myself in full-time parish work.” In this very different setting, however, “the call resurfaced.”

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