Blight fight is latest battle for Episcopal priest

Church activism gives woman's life and faith meaning

November 11, 2001|By Cynthia Burton | Cynthia Burton,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - The first time the Rev. Mary E. Laney got up to preach, she couldn't find her voice.

"I thought my mouth wouldn't open," she said and laughed.

That was probably the last time.

For a dozen years, Laney, 60, vicar of St. Gabriel's Episcopal Church in Olney, Pa., has been a prominent voice for residents of working-class Philadelphia neighborhoods struggling to free themselves from crime and decay.

She has used that voice, sharp and clear, to prod former Police Commissioner Richard Neal, Mayor John Street, and Council President Anna C. Verna into action.

Not alone

Standing up to power figures in a city that runs on political juice doesn't seem to bother her. She knows she is not alone in the struggle.

She is one of three co-chairs of Philadelphia Interfaith Action, an organization of religious and community groups that push the neighborhood agenda.

Sometimes that push comes with an attention-grabbing shove.

In 1996, when members of the group felt that the Police Department wasn't running hard enough after drug dealers, they delivered a Rome-is-burning fiddle to Neal. When Street took too long, in their opinion, to make good on a 1999 campaign promise to fight neighborhood blight, they dumped a pile of bricks outside his City Hall office.

But when Street recently announced his $250 million blight proposal - to demolish 14,000 buildings, clear land for development, and provide home-improvement money - they supported him.

Recently, they held a "hearing" to attack Verna and the City Council for refusing to introduce legislation to fund Street's plan.

Never mind that Verna and others don't want to give money to a program that the administration has not explained to their satisfaction. To members of the interfaith group, the City Council is in the way.

Verna's staff dismissed the mock hearing. "A waste of time," spokesman Daniel Fee said.

Relentless pressure

Still, the group's pressure is relentless. "We understand there is a problem between City Council and the mayor," Laney said. "But avoiding it and playing games is not going to help. That's not how you deal with it. Do they need therapy?"

Such pointed observations come easily to Laney now, but it took her about 40 years of private living to find that public voice.

She was born in Mayfair. When she was 8, her mother died; she was reared by two aunts in Olney, a few blocks from St. Gabriel's.

She married Earl Laney, chief executive officer of The Inquirer and Daily News Employees' Federal Credit Union, 41 years ago. They had three children. Laney was a den mother, a Girl Scout leader, a Home and School Association board member.

When her children reached adolescence, Laney went to work for the Episcopal Diocese, helping parishes organize themselves around business models.

`A whole new circle'

"It brought me into a whole new circle of people who had been involved in different issues," she said. They included retired Pennsylvania Bishop Robert DeWitt and the late Rev. David Gracie, who fought for civil rights and world peace. She said she learned "there's a whole different way to be the church. To me, this was exciting. It gave my life meaning. And it gave my faith meaning."

When she told her family she wanted to become a priest, "they sort of said, `Well, it's not a big surprise.' They kind of were almost waiting for me to say something like that. That surprised me."

But not those who knew her.

The Rev. Edward Chinn, rector of All Saints' Episcopal Church in Torresdale, who has known Laney since she was in pigtails, recalls her telling him of her decision.

"In the mid-'70s, I was opposed to women's ordination," he said. "I have since rethought it. Mary was one of the reasons."

To become an Episcopal priest, Laney had to go to college. So she enrolled at Temple University at age 39, the same year her eldest daughter, Nancy, started at Chestnut Hill College.

After college, she spent three years at the General Theological Seminary in New York. In 1987, she was ordained a priest; she served first as an assistant at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh. That's where she preached for the first time and - for the last time - almost lost her voice.

In 1989, she came to St. Gabriel's in her old neighborhood, Olney, where she was overwhelmed by the problems of drugs and violence. Members of her congregation didn't think their children were safe, so Laney opened an after-school program, then an adult-literacy program and a computer-literacy program.

Struggle against drugs

She also moved against the drug dealers, feeding critical information to the police. Drugs "are destroying young lives and families," she said.

She knows.

In 1992, her son Christopher, 26, died of a drug overdose.

She "came to the point," she said, that if "he was never going to be able to be healed of this, that I would rather go through the pain of losing him - which never goes away - than have him struggle here."

"The kid, he was in agony," she said. "He's with his grandparents; he's with the Lord. To me, it was a real healing for him. It was the only healing. Maybe that's the way you resolve it."

After his death, she went on, working so hard that she eventually put herself out of a home.

Until three years ago, she and her husband lived in St. Gabriel's rectory. But she filled the rooms with her education programs and they ran out of space, sending the Laneys back to a house they own in Lafayette Hill.

There she quietly sips iced tea on the deck, even in solitude answering the voice that moves her: "We're not called to sit in that sanctuary day after day and not go out and find out what are the needs of the people around us."

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