Vicar’s mission: Save St. Francis Episcopal Church

Sean C. Morgan

Mother Julia Fritts McWilliams has a mission: to save a little treasure of a church in the heart of Sweet Home.

The former rock ’n’ roll drummer is the new vicar at St. Francis Episcopal Church. She has been in Oregon for about a year working for the bishop, but now she finds herself delighted to serve St. Francis, tucked away in the avenues of Sweet Home.

Fritts McWilliams, 55, grew up in Maryland, in the Rockville-Gaithersburg area, she said. She lived in Baltimore for about 20 years, and “that’s where I finally said ‘yes’ to my call to priesthood.”

She first felt the call at age 7 as a little Methodist girl, she said. “I felt more close to Jesus than the church. I felt the church to be a confining place,” and it didn’t match up well to Jesus. She said she couldn’t reconcile “Jesus teachings” to the brokenness of the institution.

“So I explored religion in general, much more deeply,” Fritts McWilliams said. She felt the call to serve in her young adulthood. Although female leadership in the church was in its beginnings, she has always been a free spirit and didn’t see herself fitting into that mold.

She felt the call to serve where there was suffering, and she earned her first master’s degree, in physical therapy, from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“That helped me help on the physical level of suffering,” Fritts McWilliams said. She worked at John Hopkins and was senior physical therapist of neurology and neurosurgery. Doing that work, she became intrigued with different levels of healing and developed an interest in acupuncture.

She earned a second master’s degree in acupuncture from the Traditional Acupuncture Institute and opened a practice that grew into two offices.

“Meanwhile, I had discovered the Episcopal Church,” Fritts McWilliams said. “Everything had changed. In my young adulthood, I sort of shopped for a church but couldn’t find a fit.”

In the Episcopal Church, “I was so moved by the beauty of the ancient traditions and found a church that now matched Jesus’ mandate,” she said. “Jesus teaches us to love each other, to respect the dignity of every single human being. It’s in our baptismal vows.

“The Episcopal Church has always been the leader in wrestling around the hard questions – who’s in, who’s out. Jesus says everyone is in. Other churches say, ‘We’re in – You’re out,’ and that’s not what Jesus taught at all.”

Every person is unique, and God loves them, she said, with real love. That means speaking the truth, holding each other accountable and putting the other person first, loving them and recognizing their dignity and goodness and how needed their gifts are.

Some people are created with weird gifts, like herself, she said.

“That’s why I thought I’m not intended to serve the church, but the God who sent Jesus wants us to be who we are.”

Each person’s gifts bring light into the world and the churches, she said. “We want these lights to get brighter, but if each of these little lights blinks out – that’s heartbreaking. If we are called into abundant life, we need to feed these little lights. People walking around thinking they’re not good enough, they’ve done so much wrong, they’re hopeless. This is a place where people can find a home and people can find sacred space.

“What I want people to know is that God is real, God is present with them at every moment – that God loves them and that it’s possible to have a personal relationship with God and that this sustains us and makes us strong enough to do important things that will really help.

“What my process is, is to help people develop a relationship with God that honors that personal connection as well as the vast mystery of God that holds all of that. We are children of God, and there’s big work to do. God needs every last interesting gift to get it done.”

She personally grappled with all of the big questions as she studied world religions, Fritts McWilliams said. “Still, for me, it was always Jesus Christ at the center.”

Fritts McWilliams’ path to the church began with her membership in the Episcopal Church back east. Serving as a lay leader, she was called by the church to serve in a larger capacity. She finally said yes and began the “process of discernment.”

It is an eight-year ordainment process, Fritts McWilliams said. The bishop decides in the end whether to ordain a potential priest.

“It’s very rigorous for good reasons, so all people ordained are ordained for the right reasons,” Fritts Williams said.

Sept. 11, 2001 is when she made her decision, she said. “Watching 9/11 unfold made me realize that the only real help we can offer each other is the fact that God is real and God is present with us in everything.”

All the help she had been able to offer so far had been physical, she said. “It’s all good, but the real help is we’re not alone – God is present and with us. I finally gave up all of my resistance.”

She earned her Master of Divinity degree from the General Theological Seminary in New York and was ordained to the deaconate in August 2008. That’s the first step for all priests. She served as deacon at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Stanford, Conn., before being ordained as a priest.

Since then, she moved to Oregon to marry her longtime best friend, Michael McWilliams, who holds a Ph.D. and is a forest pathologist for the Oregon Department of Forestry.

She has served as interim Episcopal campus minister at Portland State University, supply priest for the diocese of Oregon and associate priest at Good Samaritan Episcopal Church in Corvallis.

She is a member of the adjunct faculty at the General Theological Seminary in New York City and is currently building an acupuncture practice in Corvallis.

The Episcopal Church was the first to ordain women as priests, Fritts McWilliams said. It was the first to really wrestle with the issues of human rights and civil rights within the many strata, economic, social and sexual, wrestling with issues of diversity.

“With those really challenging questions, they’ve paid a really high price for it,” Fritts McWilliams said. That is why the church in Sweet Home has dwindled, but the church has stood steady with inclusiveness for all of these things for many years.

Now the church, with attendances reaching as low as eight but also operating in the teens, is ready to give it one last push to bring the Sweet Home church full to life again, Fritts McWilliams said.

She is serving as interim vicar at St. Francis Episcopal Church. Vicars are heads of small churches, some of them struggling.

“The bishop asked if I would come here and put my energy into this place for one last try,” Fritts McWilliams said. “The budget here gives me three months to see what we can do. I’m applying every skill I’ve got to bring some life into this place. It’s a treasure. It’s kind of hidden here in the neighborhood (at the intersection of Eighth and Dogwood). From the outside, you’d never guess how lovely the sanctuary is, and it is a sacred place.

“It seems to me it’s just what Sweet Home needs, every town needs, especially the ones hit so hard with unemployment, with all sorts of challenges.”

Fritts McWilliams is planning a variety of events through the end of the year and adding activities for the community, such as drum lessons and Tai Chi.

She was a professional musician in addition to all of her other work. A drummer and a vocalist, she performed in a Celtic rock group, Jane and Julia, in the early 1990s. Their first recording, “North Sky,” reached number one on Radio Riga in Latvia. A magazine there had given the group good reviews, and word spread, pushing her music up the chart.

She plans to give drum lessons at the church, and she enjoys intergenerational music, with musicians of all ages performing together.

She also is ranked at sky-level, the highest, in Tai Chi, an internal martial art based on movement forms. She started a program in Connecticut called “Got Peace?” where she teaches meditation and Tai Chi. It helped people hold steady at a time when the economy was crashing. She worked in an area filled with millionaires who had no skills for coping with the downturn, and it helped them as well as brought them into the church.

It connected her to people who want to explore divine but don’t trust the church for whatever reason, she said.

She has continued the program in Corvallis, and plans to bring the meditation to St. Francis for those who are interested.

On the Sunday following Thanksgiving, Nov. 27, the church held a Blessing of the Animals in recognition of its namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.

Drum lessons are held on from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesdays at the church for $15 per hour.

At 6 p.m. on Wednesdays is a soup supper, guided Scripture meditation and a candlelit compline, a “beautiful ancient sung prayer for peace in a busy time.”

At 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 16, will be carols, cookies and photos with Santa.

A festive candlelight Christmas Eve service is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Dec. 24.

St. Francis Episcopal Church is located at 341 Eighth Ave. and may be reached at (541) 367-3019. Sunday service begins at 10 a.m.