Chaplains help school round out its mission

Women act as counsel to the girls of St. Paul's

November 10, 2003|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

When Nancy Laufe Eisenberg came to Baltimore two years ago to head St. Paul's School for Girls, it seemed to her that an important piece was missing at the private day school.

Though it had long been affiliated with Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore, the school had never had its own chaplain. But that changed this school year, when Eisenberg named not one, but two women to share the new office of chaplaincy.

Nicki Magee Ridenour, a longtime religion teacher, and Caroline R. Stewart, a newly hired educator with a degree in pastoral and spiritual care, were installed at the end of last month as the first two chaplains in the school's history, which can be traced to 1799.

"The office of chaplaincy is a very important piece of the school," Eisenberg said recently. "I came from an Episcopal school in Texas with three chaplains. St. Paul's has the academics, fine arts and athletics. Now the spiritual growth part of our mission will be carried out."

Eisenberg called Ridenour and Stewart "remarkable women who are committed to the school and the chaplaincy."

Ridenour, 64, of Towson has been teaching at the school for 24 years and is chairwoman of the religious studies department. In addition to her duties as chaplain, she teaches religious studies part time to seventh- and eighth-graders.

Though her official title is now chaplain, Ridenour has been serving in that role while teaching religion classes.

"It feels wonderful to have the work that I've been doing acknowledged," she said. "The school has always supported the spiritual life of the community."

Stewart, 55, of Stevenson was hired in July as a part-time chaplain, after working in private school admissions and serving as a trustee for the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills. She said this "new chapter of my life" started about four years ago after a friend died of breast cancer.

She went back to school and received a master's degree in pastoral and spiritual care from Loyola College and has recently been accepted as a postulant for priesthood in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. She is taking classes at the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary's Seminary & University.

Stewart said she hoped to strengthen the school's relationship with Old St. Paul's and with the diocese while making people more comfortable with women in the ministry.

"Women are still an oddity in the ministry," said Stewart, who plans to become an ordained priest. "I want this to be an opportunity for the girls to use this as a model."

Eisenberg said the office of chaplaincy was a natural addition to the support services provided at the school, which has 468 students in fifth through 12th grades and 100 faculty and staff on the campus in Brooklandville. Until this year, the school shared the services of a chaplain and associate chaplain from the all-boys St. Paul's School, on the same campus.

Sharing the duties of chaplain means coordinating chapel services, monthly Eucharists and outreach programs. The two women also have counseled students, faculty and staff and initiated a "care committee" of parent volunteers. The volunteers help provide meals, cards, rides and other assistance for families in the community in the event of a death, illness or emergency.

Nancy Mugele, president-elect of the school's parents association, said Ridenour and Stewart helped her family through a difficult time.

Four days after school started this year, Mugele's father-in-law died. She said the two chaplains checked on her daughters - Jenna, 13, an eighth-grader, and Kelsy, 11, a sixth-grader - while they were in school and called their home to see if there was anything they could do.

"They genuinely cared about our family," Mugele said. "We are fortunate to have them."

Several students said they feel more comfortable having a chaplain of their own.

"They were a necessary addition to the school," said Whitney Mettam, 18, a senior. "We have a place to go to discuss things, and they are willing to listen to us."

Bishop John L. Rabb of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland led the investiture service at which Ridenour and Stewart were installed as chaplains.

In addition to their duties in the school community, both women also preach outside. Ridenour preaches once a month at a church in Timonium and Stewart has led services at Old St. Paul's and at other locations.

Ridenour said her goals haven't changed with her job title. "I want the girls to know that God is a viable option in their lives."

She said she is happy with her dual roles at school.

"I love being in the classroom, and I love my colleagues," Ridenour said. "I'm getting paid to talk and teach about God."

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