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Extending a calming hand at St. Paul's Cathedral

The Very Rev. N. DeLiza Spangler laughs and throws her head back, displaying a dimple, when she recalls "playing priest" as a child in the small town of Clinton, Mo., where she grew up.

"I remember excommunicating one of my friends because she giggled, but I let her back in because church wasn't the same without her," said Spangler, who will be installed next Saturday as Dean of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral and rector of its parish.

She's come a long way from serving Kool-Aid in her grandmother's silver goblets and small squished Wonder Bread circles to being the first woman to lead St. Paul's.

Today, Spangler wouldn't dream of excluding anyone, as she did her young friend. In fact, one of the church's priorities is to increase its "observable and welcoming presence."

"I say people should be welcomed whether they believe or just want to believe," said Spangler, who feels that church offers community that can't be found elsewhere. "It offers unconditional love that teaches you that you don't have to earn love. In society, you are judged by what you do. In church, you are all good enough."

Though she's been in Buffalo only a few months, Spangler is making contacts and learning her way around town to restaurants, concerts, Elmwood Avenue and the Cathedral buildings.

"I've only set the Cathedral alarm off once, so far," she said.

"Once here, I found I really like the people. Buffalo seems Midwestern in the sense that the people are friendly and genuine. People don't even honk at each other very much."

Chosen from among some 80 applicants from four countries, Spangler was a leading candidate from the beginning, said Roger Mark Seifert, a search committee member.

"We liked her candor and her vision for the future of a Cathedral parish in the heart of a depressed city situation," said Seifert, adding that she was the vestry's unanimous choice.

"I think we have the right person to take us forward," said Seifert. "Our attendance is up, our pledging is up."

Bishop J. Michael Garrison said he's delighted with the choice, seeing Spangler as a person of great energy, management competence and charismatic leadership. "And she has a wonderful sense of humor," he said.
The reception and welcome that Spangler has received in the church and community are dramatically different from what happened when the Rev. Gene Robinson was elevated to bishop of New Hampshire in 2003, making him the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and causing talk of a schism.

Spangler is gay, and she says she's been extremely open about her life from the first letter she sent to St. Paul's when applying for the post. It hasn't been an issue, she said.

"I told them I'd be coming with my family -- which includes Luanne Bauer and our dog, Whitby," she said.

Retired Bishop Joachim Fricker of Toronto, who was St. Paul's interim dean for 15 months, knows of one other requisite quality for Spangler.

"I don't know Dean Spangler very well," said Fricker, "but she seems like a calm person. It's good at a very busy cathedral to have someone who has the impression, at least, of calmness and not flying off in all directions."

>Spent time in Alaska

Spangler, 52, said she's always wanted to be a priest. "When I'd say Mass (as a child), I knew I was playing, but it was deeper," she said.

But when she asked at her church to be an acolyte, she was told that it was for boys only and she came to realize that she was also shut out of the priesthood.

In college, she considered and rejected other fields and even thought about becoming a monastic nun. "But I realized that being a monastic is a call and you don't do it because you can't do something else," she said.

Spangler decided to forge ahead. She entered General Theological Seminary in New York, graduated in 1978 and was among the first women to be ordained.

But the doors weren't swinging open for women priests.

"Not that many places were interested," she said. "I sort of wrote Alaska on an application, sort of as a joke."

She was called to St. Philip's in Wrangell, Alaska. "In Alaska, all you have is each other," she said. "You can't get mad and say you are going to go to another church."

What she realized is that all of the church's money was going to pay her salary, she said. So, she went to Willamette University to become an attorney, which she did for a time, while serving the parish on a part-time basis.

The church's Web site states: "During her tenure, St. Philip's became a self-supporting parish. Before (Spangler's) departure in May 1995, she oversaw an ambitious project to raise funds and install stained glass windows in the church."

For the next 10 years, Spangler was Rector of Saint Paul's Episcopal Church in Saint Joseph, Mich. "I began to wonder if I'd spend the rest of my active ministry there or whether it was time to make a move," she said. "And I don't like things happening by default."

When she heard about the St. Paul's opening, she was impressed by its tradition of excellent music, the hard work of the congregation, and a religious education program called Godly Play, based on the principles of Montessori, she said.

"In a day when children are bombarded with entertainment and being busy, this program teaches the importance of our own insights, creativity, quiet and reflection," she said.

Besides overseeing the life of the Cathedral, Spangler wants the Cathedral to offer something to the community. "Worship is not an end," she said. "We are fed at worship to do the work that God has given us."

>Wants to try kayaking

Since she arrived, a task force has been formed to research how the Cathedral can best use the five-story building it owns at 4 Cathedral Park, including the possibility of outreach programs on the first level.

"If we are to be an extension of the incarnation, we have to reach far beyond ourselves," Spangler said.

During times of turmoil and rifts in church life, Spangler said she stays grounded with prayer and the faith that God's love will prevail.

"Sometimes I don't know what it'll look like, but I know it's true and I can trust that," she said.

For spiritual nourishment, she reads Kathleen Norris, Annie Lamont, Philip Yancey, Rowan Williams and the early writers of the Celtic church. For fun, she wants to learn to kayak and to play the Celtic harp.

Sometimes, she said, she sits quietly in the Cathedral. "When you have an old building, you can feel the prayers that have ascended and you almost feel that you are being held. The beauty speaks to our souls on a level that words can't."

Spangler said she believes that mainline churches should maintain their identities. "We don't need to re-invent ourselves, but stay with the literature, the hymns, the worship that's been prayed down through the centuries," she said. "There's such a hunger for tradition and rootedness."


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