The Philadelphia 11 are ordained at a July 1974 service. File photo

[The Episcopal News] For the Rev. Canon Judy Heffron, retired rector of Holy Trinity Church, Covina, grainy 8-millimeter home video footage documenting the “irregular” ordinations of eleven women at the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia nearly 50 years ago, unleashed a flood of emotional memories.

“It was very powerful,” Heffron told The Episcopal News recently. “To see and hear them actually speak about those personal experiences … was very, very moving.

“As a woman at that time, my heart resonated with what they were experiencing in terms of rejection,” said Heffron, retired dean of Deanery Six, who was ordained a priest in 1982 in the Los Angeles diocese.

Heffron joined about 75 others who gathered Dec. 16 at Claremont’s Laemmle Theater to view the film. As the 50th anniversary of those ordinations approaches July 29, 2024, filmmakers Margot Guernsey and Nikki Bramley felt it was a “story for everyone … about how to break down barriers with grace, and be true to oneself in the process,” according to the film website. “And it is about standing up to institutions that do not allow all people to be who they are called to be.”

Deanery Six hosted the screening, according to the Rev. Jennifer Hughes, who serves at St. Peter’s Church in Rialto, and helped organize the event along with the Rev. Jessie Smith, rector of St. Ambrose Church in Claremont.

“We really wanted to find a broad audience,” Hughes said. “It was a story that I had known about but only in the most surface way, and I think that’s true for a lot of people in the church.

“I had a desire to understand better this part of the history because I think that the witness of women ordained in the church is one of the most important fundamental identities of The Episcopal Church. I wanted to understand for myself the history better but also I recognized the significance of a film like this more broadly.”

The July 29, 1974 ordinations of the women – Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard, Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Swanson, and Nancy Wittig – on the feast of Saints Mary and Martha, paved the way for the 1976 General Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to approve women’s ordination to the priesthood. (Their ordination as deacons was authorized in 1970, the same year women were first seated as deputies and a year after a special meeting of General Convention voted to approve women lay readers and chalice bearers. An interactive timeline of women in ministry in The Episcopal Church is here.)

Chris Blackburn, a retired campus minister and United Methodist Church elder who now lives in Pilgrim Place in Claremont, was present both at the ordinations and at the screening. In 1974 “I was a young 25; now I’m an older 75,” she told The Episcopal News in a recent telephone interview.

“There were a lot of other women from other denominations who had been ordained who went to Philadelphia specifically to support the women,” she recalled. “We assembled in the back of the Church of the Advocate and marched in together. We sat fairly close to the front, which was great.”

Reliving that day’s events “was much more emotional” than she thought it would be and she was surprised to see images of herself, if only briefly, in the film’s trailer. “I had never seen a picture of myself at the ordinations. This was back in the day that they did not have social media, or cell phones with cameras. There were no pictures of that day. It was overwhelming to see the film.”

“The Philadelphia Eleven” also reveals the challenges the women faced, post-ordination, she said. “It’s emotional for me because I know the sacrifices they made. They had no idea if they’d be shot or killed or stabbed. It was a turbulent time.”

Even amid those challenges, the women forged an incredible bond, according to Canon Serena Beeks, retired executive director of the diocesan Commission on Schools, who was at the Claremont screening.

“I knew they had faced a lot of opposition, but the vitriol and hateful and cruel and threatening messages that they got – that was overwhelming,” said Beeks. “You hear about people being persecuted for doing what they believe is right. But this went beyond … it was hard to imagine that people within the church would treat other people in the church that way.”

On the other hand, “It was striking, the degree to which they supported each other completely, the bonds that were formed. It was inspiring to see how much they supported each other. There wasn’t rivalry. There wasn’t competition. It was just support, and that was very moving.”

At a time when many of the hard-won rights of women to equity and autonomy are under threat, the film bears witness “to the history of those who fought those battles in the past and a call to action for those called to continue the struggle into the future,” according to the Rev. Canon Susan Russell, diocesan canon for Engagement Across Difference.

“The film marks the 50th anniversary of the July 1974 moment when 11 courageous women and three brave bishops shattered the stained-glass ceiling by ordaining the first women as priests in the Episcopal Church,” Russell added. “These groundbreaking ordinations opened the way for fifty years of living more fully into equity across the gender spectrum in an historically patriarchal institution – and while there is still much work to do to dismantle oppression in all its forms, the Episcopal Church has inarguably been changed because of what happened on that July day in Philadelphia. It is an important story to tell – and the film does a brilliant job of telling it.”

Approximately 90 minutes in length, “The Philadelphia Eleven” is available for screenings across the nation. The film is expected to be available via livestream in late 2024.