The Rev. Eleanor Lee McGee Street, a trailblazer in the Episcopal Church whose unauthorized ordination to the priesthood helped open the denomination to female clergy, died at her home in Hamden, CT on February 21 after a long illness. She was 78.
Ms. McGee Street’s ordination in Washington, D.C. in September 1975, along with that of three other women, followed the irregular ordination of 11 women that had taken place in Philadelphia the prior year. The bishops involved in the first ordinations were censured for their role, and the church’s presiding bishop spoke out forcefully against their defiance. The ceremony at the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation was held under strict security measures, despite the directive of the Bishop of Washington, and the women had an escape plan in case there was violence or the ceremony was interrupted. More than 1,000 people attended, and the ordination proceeded without incident.
In 1976, the Episcopal Church agreed to the women’s demands during its General Convention, despite strong opposition from conservative clergy. The decision opened the door to the priesthood for women, and the ordination of the 15 women was upheld. Some women were forced to go through additional ceremonies, but “we considered ourselves priests,” said the Rev. Alison Palmer of Wellfleet, MA, one of the four ordained in Washington. “We always maintained that we were ordained in our own ceremony, and nothing else was necessary.”
Subsequently, as a priest, Ms. McGee Street served the church as a chaplain at Trinity College, Hartford, as co-rector, along with her first husband of St. Paul’s Church in New Haven, as a professor at Yale Divinity School, and as priest associate at Christ Church, New Haven.
Eleanor Lee was born August 24, 1943, in Baltimore, MD, to John J. Hofmann, who worked for the Veterans Administration, and Eleanor Lee Browning Hofmann, who worked for a branch of the U.S. Air Force. She grew up in and around Baltimore and attended Frostburg State College, (now Frostburg State University) in Maryland, graduating magna cum laude in 1965. She enrolled at the Yale Divinity School, graduating with a Master of Art in Religion in 1969.
While at Yale, she married a fellow student, Kyle McGee, who took a position as an assistant priest at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. in 1969. It was the first racially integrated Episcopal church in the city, and Mr. McGee was its first African American priest. The church was a center of debate and activity in the social issues of the day and the couple became heavily involved in the fight for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and antiwar protests.
Eleanor Lee became the first female chaplain and assistant director of campus ministry at American University in Washington, where she worked from 1972 - 1980, and was ordained a deacon, the first step towards ministry in the Episcopal Church, in 1973. She obtained a degree in social work from American University in 1980, and following the family’s move to Connecticut in 1981, worked with homeless and chronically mentally ill people as a priest and social worker for Episcopal Social Services in Hartford until 1985. She was an associate chaplain at Trinity College in Hartford from 1981-85 and had a private therapy practice that continued for decades.
In 1987, Eleanor Lee and Mr. McGee became co-rectors of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, where they served until 1991; the couple divorced in 1993. After several years of part-time teaching at Yale Divinity School, Eleanor Lee began teaching full time in 1987, leading courses on preaching, spirituality, and pastoral care as the Squire Professor of Pastoral Counseling. She published Wrestling with the Patriarchs : Retrieving Women's Voices in Preaching in 1996. After retiring on disability from Yale in 1997, she lectured in England and the U.S. on preaching and spirituality.
Ms. McGee Street’s vision problems as a young woman were eventually diagnosed when she was 26 as Stargardt disease, a rare, genetic eye disease that causes a slow loss of central vision in both eyes. Despite her increasing loss of vision, which left her legally blind, with only peripheral sight, she continued to function without complaint, taking buses, visiting museums, and reading the New York Times with the aid of ultra-strong lenses. Several beloved guide dogs enhanced her mobility, and Max, the latest, died just a week before Ms. McGee Street.
In 2000, Eleanor Lee married C. Parke Street, also an Episcopal minister, whom she had met while a student at Yale, and they made their home on a small ranch in Westcliffe, Co. before returning to Connecticut in 2008. Mr. Street died August 17, 2021.
In recent years, Ms. McGee Street was increasingly crippled by arthritis in her spine and became unable to walk, but served as a priest associate at Christ Church, New Haven, and as the spiritual director of an internship program at the church.
Ms. McGee Street is survived by two sons: Kyle M. McGee II, his wife Sophia Salguero McGee, and two grandchildren: Martin and Sydney of Brooklyn, N.Y., and Matthew McGee and his wife Janet Mahon, of Guilford, CT; her brother, Joseph Hofmann, his wife Mary, and her nephew Chris Hofmann; and three stepchildren: Claude Parke Street 4th, Laura Street and Susannah Vitaglione.
A Requiem Mass will be held on Saturday, March 12, at 11:00am at Christ Church, New Haven followed by interment in the memorial garden. A live stream of the service may be accessed at christchurchnh.org. Gifts in her memory may be made to Christ Church, 84 Broadway, New Haven 06511 or online at christchurchnh.org/giving. Arrangements are with the Hawley Lincoln Memorial, 424 Elm St. New Haven. To sign the online guestbook please visit hawleylincolnmemorial.com.