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Episcopalians sanctify woman Church dedicates feast day to late Buffalo-born deaconess

Buffalo has its own saint after all.

Area Catholics are awaiting two miracles that would qualify Father Nelson Baker for sainthood, but another Western New York native already is being recognized for her saintly works by the Episcopal Church USA.

Harriet Bedell -- who was born in Buffalo and served tirelessly as a teacher and missionary among indigenous peoples in Oklahoma, Alaska and Florida -- has been added to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts, a calendar of saints celebrated each year by Episcopalians.

Bedell will be commemorated annually on Jan. 8, the anniversary of her death in 1969 at age 93.

Unlike Baker, who is revered in Western New York for his work with orphans and the poor, Bedell is a virtual unknown in Buffalo -- primarily because her ministry as a deaconess in the church was elsewhere. She moved away from the area at age 32.

However, among Episcopalians and Native Americans, particularly in Florida, she was respected as a dynamic and heroic woman who crossed cultural lines and improved the quality of life of thousands of Indians.

Bedell was a trailblazer in many ways.

While ministering in a small village on the Yukon River in Alaska, for example, Bedell struggled to reach remote communities with nursing supplies and food. She solved the problem by learning to drive a dog sled.

Her accomplishments are more impressive considering the era, when women mostly stayed at home and kept house. Bedell never married.

"This is before women even had the right to vote," said Susan Witt, archivist for the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York. "Give her a Wonder Woman costume, I guess. She's fantastic."

Like Catholics, Episcopalians recognize the Christian church saints of pre-Reformation times.

But Episcopalians take a far different approach to naming people to their calendar of saints today. The Episcopal Church doesn't generally use titles like "Saint" or "Blessed" in front of names of newer additions to the calendar, nor does it consider them "canonized."

Criteria for selecting individuals also differ.

There is, for example, no requirement that two documented miracles occur through the saint's intercession -- as is the case in the Catholic Church.

Nonetheless, inclusion in the Lesser Feasts and Fasts is extremely rare and significant, and the church typically waits at least two generations after a person has died before considering him or her for the calendar.

"Some lives are truly exemplary in what it means to live a Christian life to the fullest," said Laurie Wozniak, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York. "We see the person's ministry among us as a type of miracle."

Bedell and six others were nominated and added to the calendar at the 75th annual convention this summer.

Bedell personified "the missionary ideal," said Sheryl Kujawa, academic dean and professor of church history at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and vice president of the Episcopal Women's History Project, which nominated Bedell for the calendar.

"She's really an important figure," Kujawa said. "Her life typified that spirit of the first professional church women who went to places where no one else would go."

Bedell's inclusion on the calendar will be on a trial basis until 2010, when it becomes permanent unless objections arise. She joins notable Christians such as C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr.

Also part of the calendar is the Right Rev. Charles Henry Brent, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York from 1918 to 1929.

Brent was a noted ecumenist who served as the first missionary bishop to the Philippines and was chaplain to Gen. John J. Pershing during World War I. Brent's feast day is March 27.

Born in 1875, Bedell grew up on Amherst Street and attended St. Mary's on the Hill Church at Niagara and Vermont streets. The church was closed in 1993.

Bedell worked as a public school English teacher and became assistant principal at Doyle School. At age 32, she was inspired to leave Western New York and serve as a church missionary after listening to a missionary priest.

Bedell worked briefly among the Senecas in Cattaraugus County before being sent in 1908 to Whirlwind Mission in Oklahoma, where she ministered among the Cheyenne and was adopted into the tribe and given the name "Bird Woman."

In 1916, at the request of the Alaskan bishop, she moved to Stevens Village, Alaska. Not feeling she was helping the most needy, she askes to go farther north, just 40 miles below the Arctic Circle, where she learned to drive the dog sled.

Bedell was "set apart" as a deaconess in 1922, and for most of her life she wore a habit and cross around her neck.

Her missionary work expanded in 1933 to a reservation in the Florida Everglades, where she helped revive interest among the Miccosukee Indians in handicrafts. The impoverished Indians, long ignored by the federal government, were able to boost their incomes by selling the handmade products.

Bedell also helped the Miccosukee gain tribal status and hold on to 200,000 Everglades acres for hunting and fishing. She finally gave up her mission in 1960, at age 85.

e-mail:jtokasz@buffnews.com

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