The Rev. Melinda Hall spent time in South Korea, Lebanon and England and lived in Kentucky and New Jersey before she moved to Brookville, Pennsylvania. Despite her global experience, she hoped her next career move would keep her in the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.
That wish came true on Sunday when she was named dean-elect of the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie. When Hall, 35, takes up the job in mid-October, she will be the first woman to lead the congregation of 250 members and the youngest cathedral dean in the Episcopal Church.
The superlatives attached to her appointment don’t interest her nearly as much as the opportunity to be involved in Erie’s rebirth.
“This is a fascinating time for Erie and for the cathedral congregation,” Hall said. “As downtown Erie redevelops, the cathedral’s more open spirituality and tradition of beautiful worship can provide opportunities for people to find a sacred space where they can connect to themselves and to God.”
When Hall speculates about the potential of attracting newcomers with Anglican liturgy, she is speaking from experience. Raised in an evangelical Christian church, she drifted away from that tradition in college and fell in love with choral evensong while studying abroad in Oxford, England.
Shortly before that, she had abandoned an economics and finance major in favor of English literature and enrolled in some theology classes.
“It blew my mind,” she says. “People asked any question they wanted. Growing up, I had never heard that Jesus cared about poor people.”
Unsure about a career path, she followed a mentor’s suggestion and applied to seminary. After deferring her enrollment for a year to teach English in South Korea, she started at Princeton Theological Seminary, where an Episcopal Church sits on a corner of campus. She walked in, she says, and never walked out.
After Princeton, she spent a fellowship year in Lebanon learning about Islam and Middle East church traditions, and then a year at General Theological Seminary in New York studying Anglicanism. She and her husband, the Rev. Nathan Royster, a Presbyterian minister, moved to Brookville in 2012, where she was ordained by Bishop Sean Rowe in 2013. She served in DuBios and then in Brookville as vicar of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.
The couple, whose son was born in March, will move to Erie in the fall.
“Living in rural America has been the experience of a lifetime,” she says of her time in Brookville. “I cannot catalog the number of things I’ve learned.”
For Ed Palattella, the cathedral’s senior warden who led the search for a new dean, Hall’s commitment to the region helped her stand out among the dozen applicants for the job.
“What really impressed us is her vision. In northwestern Pennsylvania, we have our struggles, but we have so much talent here with what is happening in Erie. We wanted someone dynamic, a community builder, who will continue making Erie aware of the Episcopal approach to investment and engagement in the community.”
When Hall’s election was announced on Sunday at the cathedral’s principal service, the news was met with extended applause, Palattella says. The Very Rev. John Downey, who has been dean since his successor was in preschool, told the congregation that the hire was “brilliant.”
Palattella says that the cathedral’s congregation “wanted us to make a bold move” in hiring the new dean. He credits Rowe with fostering a desire for innovation.
“The bishop pushes us to think beyond ourselves, to approach what we want to be in a big way without being unreasonable. He’s supportive of not limiting our thinking based on our geography or economy.”
For Rowe, a native of the region who only recently relinquished the title of youngest bishop in the Episcopal Church, hiring Hall is the right response to the new energy he finds in the city and the congregation.
“Melinda is a first-rate preacher and teacher, and she is deeply committed to our region,” he said. “Her faithfulness to the gospel and energy for collaborating make her the ideal leader for a cathedral in a city poised for change.”
On the day after the announcement of her election as dean, Hall and Royster spent the afternoon house hunting in Erie, an endeavor that gives her a personal stake in the city’s revitalization. But even as Erie makes room for young couples like them, she is committed to ensuring it also cares for people too often pushed aside by urban redevelopment.
“The church needs to be a voice of faithfulness making sure people on the margins aren’t left out of change,” she says. “We can model what reinvestment in communities looks like.
“At the core of who I am as a priest is the conviction that the church exists for the world.”