When the Rev. Jane Holmes Dixon became the second female bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1992, it took a lot of people in the Christian community by surprise.
But for the parishioners and clergy of St. Phillip's Episcopal Church in Laurel, where Dixon served as rector for six years, it hardly came as a surprise at all.
"She knew then that her presence as rector was groundbreaking; she knew the importance of it," said the Rev. Oran Warder, who worked alongside Dixon for four years at St. Phillip's. "While we were there together, the church grew dramatically. ... She always wanted to be engaged in the life of the community, always looking for ways to bring people together to make that happen."
Dixon, 75, died in her sleep Christmas morning, Dec. 25, 2012. A funeral service is scheduled for Saturday at the Washington National Cathedral. She is survived by her husband, David Dixon, three children and six grandchildren.
Warder, now the rector at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, in Virginia, said Dixon taught him all he knows about being a priest, and added that she was truly an innovator who was "the perfect fit" for Laurel.
St. Phillip's parishioner and lifelong Laurel resident Betsy Welsh said she remembers serving on the search committee that brought the innovative Dixon to Laurel in 1986.
"She got us to act justly, got us involved in more outreach," Welsh said, " In six short years, she enabled us to really have the courage to be open to all kind of possibilities."
During her time in Laurel, Dixon helped establish community programs that still thrive more than 25 years later. Among those is Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services, which provides assistance to homeless and low-income individuals in the Laurel area through counseling and other services.
Dixon, with the help of then-Laurel Mayor Dani Duniho, was instrumental in organizing Laurel parishes to create the program, which served as a more comprehensive way to address issues within the city.
"I took it to Jane because she was very interested in the poverty question in Laurel, and Jane went right to business," said Duniho, Laurel's first woman mayor who was a St. Phillip's parishioner during Dixon's tenure and now lives in Arizona. "She was the person who gathered together a lot of other churches of all denominations. She was the person who wheedled people into being officers of this organization. She put the organization together."
While Duniho said working with Dixon to establish LARS in 1987 introduced her to the "serious Jane Dixon," she also recalls Dixon as a very kind and affable person.
"The light side was almost mostly present," said Duniho."The church was always welcoming of whoever came to the congregation. An atmosphere was created when she was there."
Duniho said she recalls one summer church picnic where the parish parents were alerted by a large commotion, and found Dixon next to a large boom box teaching parish children the electric slide.
"She was an instigator of fun," Duniho said.
A 'powerful female leader'
It was Dixon's good sense of humor and motherly touch that made her such a hit with the children.
Parishioner Susan Hayes, of Laurel, recalled her daughter coming home from high school with an assignment to write an essay about a powerful female leader.
"She came to me and said, 'Well, I have to write it about Jane,' " Hayes said.
Hayes recalls the first time she met Dixon, a moment that she said is indicative of the kind of pastor and rector Dixon was.
"When I moved to Laurel 25 years ago, I called to find out about times for Christmas Eve service and was surprised the rector answered the phone," Hayes said. "One of my children got sick so we missed the service, but when I met Jane at the end of the next service she said, 'I was waiting for you to come.' She epitomized Southern hospitality in everything she did."
While Dixon, a Mississippi native who attended Virginia Theological Seminary in her 40s, was known for her Southern charm, it was not something to be mistaken for weakness.
"She forced people to look beyond their walls, she made you confront things you might not have thought were an issue," Hayes said. "She became a symbol for our daughters everywhere."