Latino communities in the Philadelphia region celebrated a milestone over the weekend: Yesenia “Jessie” Alejandro became the first Hispanic woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.
“I’m joyful that we have accomplished this historic achievement, because we can now bring hope and representation to our community as the Hispanic priest,” said the Rev. Alejandro, 49.
The mother of four children and grandmother of 11, Alejandro was ordained Saturday during a ceremony at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Norristown, after seven years of local service and studies in a nonconventional path to Episcopal priesthood.
After she was ordained a deacon on Dec. 21, Alejandro was reassigned from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Chester County to St. John’s, where she served a mainly Spanish-speaking congregation.
During the 10 months she spent in the transition from deacon to priesthood, Alejandro helped communities in South Jersey, Philadelphia, and the surrounding counties with food distribution and door-to-door spiritual and emotional support for families during the pandemic. She created two ministries dedicated to women’s and men’s issues in Norristown and led the creation of a support network for Guatemalans in the Philly area with relatives in Central America.
She had served as a pastor in a nondenominational church for 11 years in South Philadelphia and spent 20 years leading the Mothers Mission ministry in Kensington.
The Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania has been ordaining Latinas to positions such as deacon and priest for over 20 years, some who were transplants from other places, including Puerto Rico, and others who rose within the state’s church to serve elsewhere.
Alejandro, who arrived in Philadelphia from Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, 29 years ago, is the first Episcopal leader with local ties who has completed the path to priesthood, rising within the state’s diocese and remaining to serve Hispanic and immigrant communities in Pennsylvania.
Kimberly Lamberty Torres, a Philly Puerto Rican who now lives in Lindenwold, Camden County, met Alejandro during their humanitarian efforts in Puerto Rico, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island in 2017. She said Alejandro’s accomplishments open doors for Latinas that didn’t exist before.
“The place for women in the church was very limited. Now, she is breaking stereotypes and making it comfortable for women, making it safe for women to come forward, to talk about domestic violence and difficult marriages, in a man’s world,” said Torres.
As part of her journey to become an Episcopal priest, Alejandro took classes on anti-racism, church, and child safety; read books about Anglicanism and Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; memorized the priest handbook; attended conferences; shadowed a priest; completed a psychiatric evaluation; and remained fit.
Bishop Daniel Gutiérrez, the XVI bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, said Alejandro is the first Hispanic person to complete the path to priesthood through the local formation program he introduced in 2017, an alternative path to service, created for those who find their calling to serve the church but don’t have the time or financial resources to attend a theological college.
Alejandro was ordained along with the Rev. Darrell Tiller, a Black minister who served at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.
“The Church is about inspiring people. It’s about belonging. We haven’t been that for a long time, so it fills my heart and I’m very humble to say those sacred words to ordain Jessie and Darrell,” Gutiérrez said in a phone interview.
The Rev. Deirdre Whitfield, vicar for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Chester and Alejandro’s mentor for her rise to deacon and priest, described her as a “person to enjoy.”
She said the last Hispanic woman ordained a deacon in the state’s Episcopal Diocese was Jackie Ponce in the late 1990s, who served at the Free Church of St. John in Kensington. Whitfield said there had been no Latina priest until now.
“I was waiting for the opportunity to encourage others, and when Jessie was brought to me, I could tell from her spirit that she would go places,” she said.
David Cruz, a photojournalist and Alejandro’s husband, said their family is very happy she persevered over the years and is eager to see what she will do for the disenfranchised.
“She understands the ins and outs of the city, so now the community has someone [in the church] who understands the locals and their culture,” he said.
Alejandro said she is ready for her new role: “I know we have a lot of work in our communities looking forward, because there’s a great need at this time. I’m nervous, but hopeful that we will get through it.”