Maine bishop ‘fairy godmother’ to Houlton parish

Posted Sept. 14, 2008, at 10:54 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2011, at 12:18 p.m.

The elaborate garb of an Episcopal bishop can be confusing to adults born into the tradition, but children can be utterly confounded when confronted with a bishop in full ecclesiastical regalia. Bishop Chilton Knudsen found that out the first time she visited Church of the Good Shepherd more than 10 years ago.

Knudsen returned Sept. 4 to the 120-year-old church on Main Street to attend one of several retirement parties held around the state in her honor. In Houlton, the bishop recalled how a young member of the congregation reacted to seeing Knudsen decked out in her bishop’s outfit shortly after her consecration in March 1998.

“I was standing in this very basement waiting for the service to begin,” she said, “with a couple of little girls who were going to be acolytes. One, who was about 6, kept looking me up and down. I could tell she wanted to ask me a question, so I walked over to her.

“She looked up at me and asked, ‘Are you the fairy godmother?’ I said, ‘No.’ She looked so disappointed,” Knudsen continued. “I straightened myself up to my full height of 5 foot 2 inches and said, ‘I’m your bishop.’ And in the way children of that age often do, she said, ‘Oh, I knew that.’”

The more than 80 people who attended the service and send-off for the bishop laughed heartily, but as they described the impact Knudsen has had on their congregation during her tenure, it sounded like she had indeed been something of a fairy godmother to the parish.

“She came [to Maine] at a very hard time for us,” Dana Delano, senior warden at Good Shepherd, told Knudsen at the party. “We didn’t know where we were headed. We were thinking about closing our doors, but you came in and blessed us.”

A decrease in population in Aroostook County and the church meant it no longer could support a full-time rector by the mid-1990s. It could barely make ends meet financially when Knudsen was elected bishop in November 2007.

Fred Grant, a lifelong member of the congregation, agreed. He said that under her leadership the diocese offered Good Shepherd financial and spiritual leadership. In 2000, Knudsen worked out an arrangement with the Anglican Diocese of Fredericton, New Brunswick, to share a priest.

“She’s done so much for us,” he said. “Our church probably wouldn’t have survived if not for support from her and the diocese. That’s what’s kept us alive. We’re a real success story for the diocese.”

The Rev. Leslie Nesin became the church’s half-time pastor in 2004. Under her leadership, Grant said, parish membership has grown every year. Nesin, he said, is making the transition to being a two-thirds-time priest this fall. The Rev. Jessie Drysdale serves as deacon at Good Shepherd.

“We did feel we were forgotten up here,” Delano told Knudsen. “Thanks for not forgetting us.”

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