February 8, 2014

Rock Hill minister wanted to be a nun; became Episcopal priest instead

Janice Melbourne's journey of faith began in a “marginally Methodist” family that went to church twice a year, attending Catholic Mass in Helsinki, followed by a return to the Methodist church, then an introduction to the Episcopal church through her husband, Pierre Chalaron.

Growing up, Janice Melbourne wanted to be a nun. Instead she became a priest.

Her lifelong journey of discovery began with her birth in Tehran, Iran, where her father was a U.S. foreign service officer. The journey now has come to Rock Hill, where the Rev. Janice Melbourne Chalaron is the rector at the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour.

Her journey of faith began in a “marginally Methodist” family that went to church twice a year, attending Catholic Mass in Helsinki, followed by a return to the Methodist church, then an introduction to the Episcopal church through her husband, Pierre Chalaron.

Along the way, there have been personal struggles as well as time spent with family and friends.

“God calls you into his path,” Rev. Chalaron said. “You are invited to explore with God, with people, with yourself. That’s how faith is shaped. It’s a gift.”

The latest companions on the journey are the parishioners at Our Saviour. She came to the church as interim pastor in March 2012. But she and the church leadership found a fit and recently decided to make her appointment permanent.

Our Saviour is in transition. Like many churches of various denominations, it has an aging congregation. These members have been stalwarts of the church, spiritually and financially, but many are dying. Chalaron has conducted 23 funerals of church members since her arrival.

Her challenge is inviting and involving more people at Our Saviour, she said. It is a challenge based on “hope and optimism, not desperation and hopelessness,” she said. The 400-member church is strong in its faith – she wouldn’t have accepted the challenge otherwise. It has a strong tradition of non-ordained leadership and community outreach.

The Episcopal church also has centuries of tradition, Chalaron said, and “the here and now.”

“That’s part of what people want,” she said.

One of Our Saviour’s greatest strengths, she said, is that “we’re not going to give you the easy answers.” The church’s teachings show “what it means to be in the gray areas of life.”

“That’s just like Jesus; he didn’t always give clear answers,” Chalaron said. “He caused to you participate, to think, reflect through faith. This is a process of discovery for me and the church.

“I live to be surprised.”

Ray Melbourne had an almost Norman Rockwell vision for the future of his three young daughters.

Each would go to college, meet a career-minded man, marry and become an at-home wife and mother.

His daughters changed the script, following their passions to become professionals in the fields of education, nursing and religion. From an early age each knew what she wanted to do.

Janice Melbourne’s choice was religion. Since the leaders of all major denominations at the time were male, she decided to become a Roman Catholic nun. She envisioned a life of singing and faith, much like what she had seen in the 1965 classic movie, “The Sound of Music.”

When her father was posted to Helsinki, a housekeeper took the sisters to a Catholic church. The Mass, said in Latin, and the rituals of the church impressed her – so much so that when the family returned to the United States and the Methodist church, she said, the sisters looked for a holy water font when entering church so they could make the traditional Catholic sign of the cross.

Her parents’ response to the influences of the Catholic church “was to dump me off at Glebe Road Methodist Church” in Arlington, Va., where they lived, Chalaron said. She joined the choir and learned that “God speaks clearly through the beauty of music.”

When she was 14, her oldest sister, April, 21, committed suicide. Chalaron started going to other churches as part of her healing process, “searching for things more important.”

After earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina, she attended Duke Divinity School with the idea of becoming a Methodist minister.

She met and married Pierre Chalaron while living in Durham, N.C. One day, he decided they would attend the church of his faith, the Episcopal church.

So with Pierre Chalaron’s copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayers in hand, they went to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Durham. Rector Bob Johnson, who would go on become the bishop of North Carolina, met them at the door and spotted the now out-of-date prayer book.

“We’ve updated that since the last time you have been in church,” he told the couple.

It was the right mix of welcome and humor, Chalaron said.

Johnson also was direct and engaging. He encouraged the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina to honor the ministries of all the baptized – including gay and lesbian members – according to his biography. He also spoke out against capital punishment and racist behavior.

“When he preached,” Chalaron said, “it was as if the scripture was speaking directly to you.”

Instead of becoming a Methodist minister, she decided to become ordained in the Episcopal Church, extending her divinity studies to include a master’s degree in sacred theology from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., and a degree from Duke Divinity School.

In 1990, she joined the staff at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Burlington, N.C., as an assistant rector. While it had been 13 years since the Episcopal church had first ordained a female priest, Chalaron faced a somewhat reluctant, but expectant, congregation.

Holy Comforter “needed to explore what it would mean to have a woman priest,” she said. To reduce some of the church’s burden, the diocese paid a portion of her salary.

She stayed at Holy Comforter for five years before being named rector at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., where she served for eight years, followed by eight years as rector at St. Bede’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta. At St. Bede’s, she said, the entire church leadership was female.

In coming to Our Saviour, Chalaron joined a church that had had a female associate rector. The search committee seemed more interested in her views on issues such as gay marriage than whether she would be accepted because of her gender, she said.

Whether Our Saviour will conduct a same-sex marriage is a decision for the Bishop of South Carolina, she said.

“Those who don’t go (to Our Saviour) because we have a woman minister are missing on something valuable,” sad Gardy Wilson, a junior warden on the church vestry – leadership team – and a member of the pastor search committee.

Chalaron was selected because of her experience, her administrative skills, her down-to-earth demeanor and most of all, Wilson said, her spiritual leadership.

“She’s easy to follow from the pulpit,” Wilson said. “She gives you a lot of think about; it’s a broader spiritual journey.”

As musician for several churches and now director of music at Our Saviour, Ginny Moe has heard her share of sermons. Chalaron has the gift of “taking me beyond myself,” she said, “where I can connect with God better.”

Chalaron is a “person of discovery, and people are drawn to her direction,” she said.

So the journey – for Chalaron and for Our Saviour – continues.

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