‘Mother Paige’ brings progressive approach to spirituality in Del Mar

The Rev. Paige Blair with two young members of St. Peter’s on Easter Sunday last year. Courtesy photo

By Claire Harlin

When the Rev. Paige Blair became ordained as a priest 20 years ago, she was one of few females to earn the designation during a time when many Episcopalian churches were still getting used to the 1976 decision to allow the ordination of women. Considering that and her young age at the time — 26 — as well as her extensive collegiate education in theology, which includes doctorate coursework at Harvard, it appeared the signs were all there that Blair would be one to buck the trend for years to come.

The Rev. Joe Dirbas (associate at St. Peter’s) and the Rev. Paige Blair get ready for a baptism. Courtesy photo

In 2009, the progressive pioneer and Del Mar resident became the first female rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, at 334 14th St., Del Mar. Not only did she turn heads nationwide when she was featured in People Magazine for making popular the “eU2charist” — a church service accompanied by U2 music in lieu of traditional hymns that caught on in churches across the U.S. — but she has also put a twist on traditions at the Del Mar church, such as her inclusion of a parish band that plays reggae beats and hymns fashioned after songs from the likes of John Coltrane and the Beatles. The church is also known for its thrift shop that’s been open since 1967 to fund outreach organizations, such as the Community Resource Center and the church’s Helping Hands Ministry, which assists those in need by providing sack lunches and other daily necessities four days a week at the Del Mar site.

And while church communities are not of one mind on a number of issues, such as inclusion of same-sex couples, Blair likes to call her congregation a “big tent where there is room for everyone.”

“We don’t have to agree on everything and sometimes things can get messy, but we love that vibrant space where there are challenges,” said Blair. “St. Peter’s is a church that loves to pray, but we also love to study. I’ve served in some churches that are all about prayer but don’t get their hands dirty, and some that love to get their hands dirty but find it too scary to open the Bible. Here, it’s a balance, a pretty holistic culture … We joke that you don’t have to leave your brain at the door.”

She added that St. Peter’s is particularly diverse, and also has many parishioners who come from different religious backgrounds, such as Catholic or Presbyterian.

“We’re everything from retired military to retired flower children, to retired educators, admirals, teachers, engineers and corporate executives,” she said. “It’s a holy hybrid.”

A self-proclaimed Air Force brat, Blair was born in Riverside but lived in Colorado and Alaska most of her life before she attended Boston University. Her original career aspiration was to become a fighter pilot, however, being asthmatic kept her from that goal and she never thought she’d end up a spiritual leader until she said she had a literal “mountaintop experience” around the age of 20.

Temporarily escaping a crisis that for years had been unfolding — her life-threatening battle with anorexia — Blair joined her father for a hike in Alaska. Weighing less than 100 pounds and standing 5 feet, 5 inches tall, Blair said her body had begun “eating itself alive.”

“Even crossing the street hurt,” she said. “I had cut myself off from other people as they challenged my addiction, and I had cut myself off from the Devine.”

But on that hike, Blair said she ventured off on her own path, and after those moments alone with nature, she came down the mountain ready to start healing.

“The church was the community in which I healed,” said Blair. “In coming to church I replaced and broke down the walls of isolation … It also challenged me and let me wrestle; It let me ask questions.”

In the years during and following her recovery, Blair received her master’s in holy scripture from the Boston University School of Theology and continued to earn her certificate of advanced graduate studies from The Episcopal Divinity School. She also did doctorate coursework at The Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge before deciding to step out of academia and into seminary to get ordained, first as a deacon and then as a pastor.

“I show up on the scene as a young woman pastor and the conversation is already different,” she said of breaking into the clerical realm.

Blair admits it’s been “a different world” having for 20 years been a rarity among her colleagues, and while disparities are decreasing, they are still present. Not only do men make up the majority of clergy, according to a 2012 Church Pension Group research report, but the number of clergy under 35 years of age has declined tremendously over the last 50 years, and now there are nearly twice as many clergy retirements as ordinations. And while there are only slightly more men recently ordained to priesthood than women (52 versus 48 percent), when it comes to being employed, only 38 percent of women have jobs in the church, while males make up 62 percent of the employed.

Katrina Hunt, a volunteer serving as St. Peter’s publicity coordinator, said when Blair joined the church in 2009 after a stringent selection process, the congregation was excited. The process included polling church members, as well as holding a number of meetings to determine the needs and direction of the church.

“Any parish who calls upon a young woman to be its rector is ready for a change,” she said.

Blair added that some members of her former church community still wrestled with the idea of bringing in their first female rector just after the turn of the century.

“Wrapping their heads around the name, ‘Mother Paige,’ was also interesting,” she said. “Some of the older folks in the congregation were like, ‘What should we call her?’ and it was weird for them because I was young enough to be their daughter but they were calling me ‘Mother.’ But people at that time had no hesitation with calling a 26-year-old man ‘Father.’”

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