The Rev. Angela F. Shepherd has spent her life opening doors -- for herself, for her congregation and community, and for women and blacks.
Her latest door opening was celebrated yesterday at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in Annapolis, where Shepherd was officially installed as rector in a ceremony presided over by Bishop Robert W. Ihloff. She became the first black woman to hold such a position in Maryland's Episcopal diocese.
Shepherd is also the first woman rector at St. Philip's, where she succeeds the Rev. Samuel Edleman, interim minister for two years, and the Rev. Robert M. Powell, rector there for 25 years.
Shepherd, 39, who spent the past three years as vicar at St. Augustine Episcopal Church in Youngstown, Ohio, says she pays no attention to such "firsts."
"God called me to do this, not a man or a woman of a particular race," she said last week, nearly a month into her new job.
The Episcopal Church started ordaining women as priests 25 years ago. By 1998, women accounted for nearly 14 percent of Episcopal clergy, according to Louie Crew, an English professor at Rutgers University and active Episcopalian who studies the church's minority representation in the clergy.
The total of black clergy in the church is far less in number, at 3.6 percent, according to Crew's data.
But the church has a strong minority presence. Shepherd grew up surrounded by strong Episcopalian faith. She and her parents, two brothers and sister would pray at home if the weather prevented them from traveling to church, and her father left his career as business manager at Kansas State University at age 40 to join the Episcopal seminary, she said.
Shepherd married in 1982, had a daughter, Athena, in 1984, and balanced motherhood with her schooling as she earned a bachelor's degree in marketing at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., in 1983 and a master's in business administration and human resources development in 1988 at Webster State University in Wichita, Kan.
She worked in the city finance department of her native Louisville, Ky., in the late 1980s, but after a divorce in 1990, Shepherd said, she realized that she didn't want her life's purpose to be "just getting a paycheck."
Shepherd approached her pastor at St. George's Episcopal Church in Louisville, where she had occasionally preached, and began the ordination process in 1991. She studied late into the nights while attending Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., and earned her master of divinity in 1996.
During her term at St. Augustine, she worked with the community's homeless, poor and youth. She also started a chapter of Daughters of the King, an international Episcopal service and evangelical order for women.
For her future at St. Philip's, she said, "There are no limitations. I might be here for 30 years, or maybe just 10. I don't want to rush, but I still see an extended vision on where I can go next."
She is working on a doctorate in ministry, specializing in small congregations, and sees much to be done at her new church -- a 250-member congregation that has been predominantly black since its founding 130 years ago. She said she hopes to strengthen its spiritual foundation, and build the church's membership and community relations.
With her background in business, she also looks to helping St. Philip's develop financially as it grows.
John L. Parham, a member of the St. Philip's vestry and the search committee that selected Shepherd, said last week that the church is eager to benefit from Shepherd's community outreach skills.
"One of our main focuses has been in inviting new members into our church," he said.
He noted that the congregation has developed plans for a Family Outreach Center addition to the church, which will provide space for church education and community programs.
Shepherd said one of her priorities is to get to know the congregation and establish a "collaborative" relationship. "I don't want to be a priest who just commands the parishioners. I want them to come to me with ideas. I want us to become one."
Peggy A. Randall, another search committee member, said Shepherd has the right focus. She also said she was impressed with Shepherd's "spiritual connection."
She said Shepherd was the only candidate who began her telephone interview with a prayer.