By Sharon Sheridan/ Morristown Green correspondent
When the Rev. Melissa Hall packed up her office to move to her new job as associate rector at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Morristown, she didn’t have to go far. She had been working a bit down South Street, at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, where she served as assistant and then interim rector.
The move marks the latest chapter for two churches whose histories have been intertwined from the start. As chronicled in “A History of Saint Peter’s Church” by J. Elliott Lindsley and Faith W. Eckler, a group of members decided in 1852 for doctrinal reasons to leave St. Peter’s and found Redeemer. After discussing the issue, St. Peter’s rector “stated that he would not oppose a peaceful secession and would wish the new congregation a long and prosperous existence.”
Commented St. Peter’s current rector, the Rev. Janet Broderick, “You would have thought he would have fought it.” Instead, she said, “Historically, there has been this relationship where we have different doctrinal views, but we care for each other.”
The presence of two Episcopal churches so near by “was always fascinating to me,” Hall said. “They really are two different churches, although Redeemer was started out of St. Peter’s.”
“Everybody accesses God in one way or another,” she said. “They do it in a different way, but ultimately the goal is the same. The goal is: How do we live in God’s world and be the best people that we can and live out the two Great Commandments – you love God the best you can with all your heart, and you love your neighbor.”
“That means tending to the earth, tending to those who are in need, tending to each other, tending to ourselves,” Hall said. “Both churches are doing all those things in different ways, different approaches, but ultimately all doing the same thing with the same passion and, I think, the same love of God and community.”
Hall likened the difference to one person speaking “high German,” another “low German.”
“They all speak German, but in a different dialect,” she said. “That’s what I think is happening with Redeemer and St. Peter’s: same language, different dialect.”
Already, some members of the two churches have bridged the language gap. Earlier this summer, members of both parishes’ youth groups joined for a mission trip to a hurricane-ravaged part of Louisiana. “There was no St. Peter’s/Redeemer,” Hall said. “It was just, ‘Hey, we’re doing here working together, having a shared experience and having fun.’”
“I think there’s lots of opportunities for joint ministry here, especially with the kids,” Hall said.
Hall begins work at St. Peter’s on Sept. 1. She arrived at Redeemer in 2007, knowing that the church’s long-time rector, the Rev. Phillip Wilson, would be retiring in the next couple of years. Already familiar with the parish, she stayed as interim, always knowing it was a transitory position, she said. “The job of the interim is to make sure everything is in place for the next person.”
Whenever anyone asked whether she could stay permanently, she said, “My answer was always … ‘It’s not what my ministry here is. My ministry here is to help you transition, to open the door for you and your new rector … and then I have to go.’”
During her installation as interim rector, she brought a walking stick she had fashioned from wood found along the Hudson River and hung it near the pulpit, telling the congregation it was a symbol of her role: “My ministry is walking through. Eventually we will get to the door, and you will hand me this stick. You will stay, and I will walk on.”
“The last thing they did for me as I processed out, they handed me my walking stick and acknowledged that that ministry was closed,” she said. “It was a powerful metaphor.”
The Rev. Lisa Green now takes over the interim role, with a new rector expected to be named by year’s end, Hall said.
Now, she said, she’s looking forward to her new ministry at St. Peter’s – which doesn’t come with a similar end date. “The good news is, I’m not walking in with a walking stick,” she said.
Broderick said she was looking forward to her colleague’s arrival.
“She’s deeply faithful and extremely intelligent. She has a very good sense of humor. She loves to serve,” she said. “She’s an enormously caring person. … She’s also a creative person, and she’s a self-starter.”
A former nurse, an artist and a poet, Hall comes to St. Peter’s with her partner, Fran, and their 13-year-old daughter Katherine.
The first year, they will continue to spend some time at their current home in Hoboken as Katherine finishes out eighth grade, the last year at her school. Recently, Katherine also asked to complete her final year of church school before confirmation with her class at Redeemer. Her parents were surprised, but assented.
“I’m very proud of her,” Hall said.
Meanwhile, she’ll be busy at the church just down the street.
“St. Peter’s is an incredible community,” with a deep history and culture, she concluded. “I look forward to being part of that and helping to shape the new community as it evolves again.”