MIDDLETOWN, Del. - Across from the Rev. Carol J. Gallagher's office at St. Anne's Episcopal Church here is a room full of small portraits of the priests who have served the 297-year-old parish. All were men - except, of course, for her.
But Gallagher's status at St. Anne's, where she has been rector since 1996, is far less notable than her latest distinction. Last month, she was elected suffragan, or auxiliary, bishop in the church's Diocese of Southern Virginia. She will be the first Native American woman to become a bishop in a major Christian church.
What's more, the decision - expected to be ratified by the church's bishops - carries a global resonance. Never has a woman from an indigenous population been elected a bishop among the 25 churches of the Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church. (A majority of those churches do not ordain women.)
Gallagher, 45 and married with three daughters, is a member of the Cherokee nation, through her mother, whose maiden name was Elizabeth Walking Stick. (Her father, a Presbyterian minister who long served a church in Harrison, N.Y., traced his ancestry to northern Europe.) Her maternal great-great-great-grandmother walked the Trail of Tears from North Carolina to Oklahoma in a forced exodus of Southeastern Indians in the 1830s.
Her mother still has that ancestor's hymnal, Gallagher said, and she instilled in her children "an identity of who we were as Cherokee people."
Gallagher seemed hesitant to speak much about being a first. "There aren't a whole lot of 'I' statements in the Indian community," she said.
Still, she said she saw her election as a bishop as offering a reminder of the enduring presence of native people. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, she said, there has been much talk of America as a nation of immigrants. "There needs to be a voice in there saying, not all of us are," she said.
A survey of Americans' religious affiliations, published last month by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, found 20 percent of Native Americans identify themselves as Baptists, while 14 percent are Roman Catholics.
Only 1 percent said they were Episcopalians.
But the Episcopal Church was first in providing an opening for ecclesiastical leadership by an American Indian, in 1971, when the Rev. Harold S. Jones was elected as a suffragan bishop in South Dakota. When Gallagher is consecrated in April, the number of Native American Episcopal bishops will increase to four.
A priest since 1990, she was ordained in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and served as an assistant priest at the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Baltimore. She serves on the editorial board of the First Peoples Theology Journal and is on the church's Council of Indian Ministries.