First female priest: “I wish it weren’t a thing.”
The Rev. Jennifer Southall is making history at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer as the first woman priest-in-charge in the church’s 168 years.
The 90-plus people in attendance at her first service Sept. 3 applauded her sermon, which focused on the Apostle Paul and his message about loving one another.
“You all are going to learn that I love the Apostle Paul,” Southall told the congregation. “He gets a bad rap for being anti-women, anti-gay, anti-Jewish and pro-slavery. Actually, I don’t think he is any of those things. There are some really smart scholars who can back me up on that.
“Paul knew that he was loved by God. Paul knew that he had an experience of the risen Christ that changed his life. He knew that he was loved and he wanted to live into that love. Paul knew what it meant to live for God versus living for yourself and the emptiness of life when we seek our own best interests.”
Southall grew up in Vicksburg in the Baptist faith, but while attending graduate school, she became acquainted with Church of the Resurrection in Starkville and developed a special connection with the church.
“I love the liturgy,” Southall said of her attraction to the Episcopal faith. “I absolutely love the way that we worship, and I also love the emphasis on a loving God and a God who accepts all people as they are, a God who we know in the person of Jesus Christ, and so we know who is on the side of those who are on the margins. And (I am) just drawn to that idea that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ that Paul talks about in Romans. Just hearing that is what attracted me to the Episcopal Church.”
Southall graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from Ole Miss and went on to Mississippi State University for a master’s in English. She worked as a copy editor and writer in Birmingham for three years, and during that time, she was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
Women have been ordained in the Episcopal Church for 40 years. I sort of wish I weren’t making history. I wish it weren’t that big a deal that a woman is serving in this capacity. I am very appreciative of those women who have gone before over the last four decades and have tread the path so that I could do this.
The Rev. Jennifer Southall, priest-in-charge at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Biloxi
In 2003, she returned to Oxford to work in the Ole Miss Communications office. She started attending St. Peter’s Episcopal Church.
“I attended St. Peter’s and began to sense that there might be a call to ordained ministry,” Southall said. “I became more and more involved in the church and felt drawn to this work to let people know that they are loved and nothing can change that.
“More and more I just felt that my life’s work was in the church in things that I was reading, in things that I was writing and in things that people were saying to me. I just had this sense that there was a call to ordination. And very thankfully that was affirmed through a discernment process with the Episcopal Church.”
Southall was ordained a deacon in June of 2015 and a priest on Jan. 16, 2016. Over the past two years, she served as curate at St. James Episcopal Church in Jackson, where she worked with three other priests, preparing for her next assignment.
Southall said she is moved by the reception she has received from the congregation at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. “To be here by myself is a little bit daunting. But I am very excited that they have put their trust in me,” she said.
“It was overwhelming,” Southall said. “I am very excited by the outpouring of hospitality and generosity.”
Sue Cassady, a member of St. Peter’s by-the-Sea in Gulfport, was amazed by the reception of the congregation to Southall. “I loved it,” Cassady said. “I thought the service was lovely. I thought Jennifer did a wonderful job, and the people there are obviously already in love with her, which is a good thing.”
Southall said that she foresees no significant changes at Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. “It’s so amazing to be able to do this work,” Southall said. “I am so thankful to be able to serve in this capacity. I am so thankful to the people of Redeemer, thankful to God and thankful to the bishop and diocese just to be able to serve with, and serve alongside the people of Redeemer.”
Southall downplayed the significance of her being the first woman to serve as priest-in-charge at the church.
“Women have been ordained in the Episcopal Church for 40 years,” Southall said. “I sort of wish I weren’t making history. I wish it weren’t that big a deal that a woman is serving in this capacity. I am very appreciative of those women who have gone before over the last four decades and have tread the path so that I could do this.”
Southall encouraged the congregation to call her “Jennifer.” She added, “For those of you who are not comfortable calling me Jennifer and are more Protestant, you may call me Rev. Jennifer. If you are more Catholic and are not comfortable calling me Jennifer, you may call me Mother Jennifer.”
About the series
Our Kind of People is a feature in the Sun Herald and at SunHerald.com that spotlights South Mississippi people whose life or work is an inspiration to others.