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The Rev. Peggy Howland is remembered for paving the road to make it easier for others to travel

Howland, who died in October, was the first Presbyterian clergywoman to serve a congregation over 200 members

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Peggy Howland

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Margaret E. “Peggy” Howland, the 12th woman to be ordained as a Presbyterian pastor, is being remembered as a way-paver and fierce advocate for those whose voices were ignored or marginalized for too long.

Howland died Oct. 21, 2021, at the age of 88. A service of the witness to the resurrection held in her memory was held May 14 at White Plains Presbyterian Church in White Plains, New York, and included an online gathering of mourners and admirers. View the two-hour service here. The order of service is here.

Howland was the first Presbyterian clergywoman called to serve a church with more than 200 members. She was a devoted scuba diver and even more devoted to the rights of people who needed her support, including the civil rights of LGBTQIA people and women’s reproductive rights.

“She was definitely not afraid to venture out into the deep and murky water, literally and metaphorically,” said the Rev. Samson Tso. “As you know, Peggy will tell you when it’s time to stand up and speak out and when it’s time to sit down and shut up.”

“No doubt,” Tso said, “we will continue to run this race that you have now completed. Well done, good and faithful servant.”

The Rev. Lynn Dunn of White Plains Presbyterian Church remembered Howland’s determined efforts to help teach her to preach. Her classroom was the sanctuary where Howland’s service was held.

“She had me stand here to read an early sermon without a microphone,” Dunn recalled. “She kept yelling, ‘Louder! Louder! Louder!’ until I thought I was yelling, and Peggy was satisfied. I learned from Peggy that if you are going to proclaim God’s word, be bold.”

“Peggy’s efforts were always on the cutting edge, what some people call the margins,” Dunn said. Considering recent news reports, “we all know Peggy would be out demonstrating right now if she could.”

Howland’s sister Jane Grim remembered Howland’s 1958 ordination because Grim had just secured her driver’s license at age 16, “and my sister let me drive in New York traffic.”

Grim said she’ll remember her sister “for being an example and role model for girls growing up, letting them see what women can do and be — and teaching nieces and nephews that giving to causes is even better than material gifts.”

“The sadness of Peggy’s death,” Grim said, “has been mixed with great joy for me.”

Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, Co-moderator 223rd General Assembly

The Rev. Cindy Kohlmann

The Rev. Cindy Kohlmann, connectional presbyter and stated clerk at New Castle Presbytery and the Co-Moderator of the 223rd General Assembly (2018), said that speaking on behalf of the PC(USA), “this denomination took far too long” to recognize both “the gifts of women in ministry” and “the gifts of our LGBTQIA+ siblings” before “finally coming around.”

“On behalf of this denomination Peggy loved and gave her heart, energy, intelligence, imagination and love to, I want to say thank you,” Kohlmann said. “She challenged us with her life and her witness that we could be fierce too … May we take up that mantle and continue with that fierce love that you showed us.”

Other leaders within the denomination paid tribute via recorded messages.

The Rev. Emily Brewer (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Emily Brewer, former executive director of Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, said Howland’s advocacy as a PPF member dated back to 1968. Howland once told Brewer she wanted to be remembered as a way-paver, “as somebody who worked really hard and made the road wider for people who came after her.” Brewer said her own ordination experience “was certainly easier because of Peggy and others like her. She did that for women and for queer people … and she was a way-paver in her advocacy and action around reproductive justice” as part of the Clergy Consultation Service. “She used the power of being a clergyperson to say abortion is a moral choice,” Brewer said. “That’s still pretty incredible.”

“I so admire the way Peggy saw herself as a part of a larger movement fighting for the rights and thriving of people,” Brewer said, “and that was peace work.”

Rick Ufford-Chase

Rick Ufford-Chase, Moderator of the 216th General Assembly (2004), called Howland “an adventurer who pushed herself beyond reasonable limits. She was a scuba diver, for goodness’ sake!”

“She was out there on the frontlines demonstrating, giving her all for the cause of justice and peace and full inclusion in the world,” Ufford-Chase said, adding that she’d dealt with chronic pain for a number of years. “I know Peggy’s gift was to be able to work through the pain and keep on going. She accomplished far more than we should expect of any reasonable person.”

The Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr

The Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr, another pioneering clergywoman, said among the great moments in Howland’s life were “when she stood up for women.”

Her first two stays in ministry were mostly about Christian education, Spahr said. “After that, she said, ‘I’m going to be a pastor.’ She went to 11 presbyteries and said no to 40 assistant minister positions because she knew she was to be a pastor” before finally landing the call she’d set her sights on.

In her retirement years in Florida, Howland joined the Orlando Gay Chorus “because she loved to sing and she loved to be with people.” While the chorus was on a singing tour of Puerto Rico, Howland was asked to tell her story, Spahr said. “There were those who told their story about being gay or lesbian. Peggy told her story of what it is to be an ally.”

“Oh, Peggy, Peggy, what you have done for so many people who were called second class, who were labeled as less than,” Spahr said. “You were right in there treating us all as equals because you knew what it was like to navigate patriarchy and misogyny yourself. We will miss you, especially right now when we are looking at so many issues that are dividing this country. We need your fight for liberation and justice, though I’m sure you’re doing that from heaven side.”

Howland’s friend the Rev. Ray Bagnuolo took a different tack, showing video clips of Howland in her own words, having recorded her in 2015 in her home. For Howland, Bagnuolo said, “it was all about being a voice for others who didn’t have a voice, about saying yes, about seeing God in our lives in ways that are mysterious and wonderful and sometimes hard.”

During her time years decades ago serving a church in the Hudson River Presbytery, “I was aware of a number of gay and lesbian clergy in the presbytery,” Howland told Bagnuolo. “As votes would come up, I knew those of them in the closet couldn’t speak, and I felt that I had to. I resented it a little bit. I thought, they’ll think I’m gay. Now I consider it a compliment if somebody thinks I’m gay.”

She called singing as part of the 125-member Orlando Gay Chorus “one of the richest experiences in my life.”

“I’m still working hard on racism and sexism and gun totin’” she told Bagnuolo. “God has given me a new mission. It makes me smile.”

The family suggests that memorial donations be made to these two organizations: Presbyterian Peace Fellowship, 17 Cricketown Road, Stony Point, NY, 10980, or Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, 4 Skyline Drive, Hawthorne, NY, 10532-2143.

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