STONINGTON — The Rev. Gillian Rachel Barr is a “a huge Harry Potter fan,” a big history buff and a self-proclaimed fountain pen nerd. She is also a groundbreaker.
The amiable 51-year-old Annapolis, Md., native who said she came to “love history, old buildings, the water, and small boats” during her 20-some years living by the Chesapeake Bay, is the first female rector of Stonington’s Calvary Church, an Episcopal community of faith founded in 1847.
Stonington has “a similar feel,” said Barr one afternoon last week as she walked across the yard from the historic stone church to her office farther down on Church Street. “I feel at home by the water.”
Barr is also at home in the world of 21st-century social media, churches, nonprofits and libraries, and with the spiritual formation of children and young adults, attributes that made her an ideal candidate to be Calvary’s new rector, said Doug Champion of Westerly, a member of Calvary’s Vestry.
“She is the perfect choice,” said Champion, who is in his second stint on the church’s vestry. “The process was long and well-thought-through ... we were all pleased that she accepted.”
“I became very impressed with Gillian during the search process,” said Champion. “She has diverse experience, and I am very excited about her potential to bring a fresh perspective to our parish and community.”
“She has nine years of experience as a priest and brings with her experience and skill in liturgy, teaching, spiritual formation, stewardship, preaching, young adult ministry, administration and digital communications,” the church’s co-senior wardens, Betsy Carr and Jennifer Parsons, wrote in their announcement letter to Calvary parishioners.
The only daughter of teachers, Barr, who arrived in Stonington with her 15-year-old shelter cat, Roxy, lived in Rochester, Minn.; San Diego, Calif.; and several cities in Virginia before moving to Providence five years ago.
She was most recently the priest-in-charge for the Church of the Good Shepherd in Pawtucket, and digital communications coordinator for the Diocese of Rhode Island, is a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and has degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Virginia Theological Seminary.
Among Barr’s many positive qualities, Carr and Parsons wrote, “the Vestry was impressed by her combination of love for the Anglican tradition and thoughtful and creative approach to spiritual formation.”
Barr, they said, not only has unique and creative ways to help children and adults develop spiritual discernment, but she has “a successful track record of expanding the stewardship program in a small parish and has designed and taught a course for adults on ‘Harry Potter and the Gospel of Christ.’”
“The Harry Potter books are profoundly Christian,” said Barr as she sat behind her desk in her cozy office, where, directly across from her, hangs a framed quote, in calligraphy, from St. Irenaeus of Lyons that reads; “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.”
“They are Christian in the deepest sense,” she said “I am sure J. K Rowling would agree.”
For Parsons, Barr’s outgoing personality along with her commitment to social justice issues and her communications and social media skills, made her an extra-appealing candidate for the full-time position that has been open since the Rev. Alfred Tisdale retired in February of 2018.
“I think she’ll be able to communicate in new ways,” said Parsons, noting that Barr is more than capable of spreading the good news about Calvary Church: that all are welcome at Stonington’s “church by the sea,” the village church with a vibrant congregation, a strong outreach program, a solid music program and a popular nursery school.
While Barr possesses all “typical priestly qualities you’d expect a priest to have,” added Parsons, “Gillian’s attributes go way beyond.”
Barr, who began her new assignment one month ago today when she became the 27th rector of Calvary Church, said she sees herself as something of “an interpreter.”
“It’s a thread that has run through all my work,” said Barr, who has worked in public libraries and history museums, including stints at Biltmore House in Asheville, S.C., and Historic Annapolis.
“I want to help people connect with the richness of the Christian tradition,” she explained, “and help them connect their questions and their personal spiritual experiences in a way they maybe haven’t seen before.”
Barr said she is interested in helping people realize that “things that might seem dry or abstract could actually help feed their faith.”
“My personal approach is to help people see that Christianity is totally compatible with concerns for intellectual inquiry,” she added. “I want to help people remember that church is primarily about a person and a movement.”
Barr points to Bishop Michael Curry, the 27th and current presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, and the first African American to serve as presiding bishop in the Episcopal Church, who is known for bringing to life “the Jesus movement.”
The Jesus Movement, Barr said, is a “community of people who center their lives on Jesus and following him into loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, each other and creation.”
“We are pro science and pro intellect,” she said, “with a vision of love, compassion and justice.”
The Episcopal Church, she said, is not so much about what you can’t do, “but about living to our best potential, lifting that up and restoring humanity to what God intended us to be.”
Barr, who blessed dozens of backpacks loaded with school supplies for underprivileged children in the area last week and oversaw the shipment of 100 hand-sewn outfits for needy children in Uganda, said she’s thrilled with the many established outreach programs at Calvary.
“We do tons of outreach here,” she said, “many wonderful things here.”
Barr said she hopes to take a deeper look at all the programs and ask, “Are we doing this the best way we can do it in 2019 and are we communicating what we’re doing?”
For now, though, Calvary’s first full-time female rector said she plans to immerse herself in all things Calvary. She wants to get to know her new parishioners, the greater Stonington area and priests and ministers in all the neighboring churches.
“I didn’t come in with an agenda,” she said. “My approach now is just to learn.”