I’ve said many times that Australian Church Women (ACW) has had some legendary women in its ranks over the 56 years since it began. Throughout the course of this blog, I have listed and remarked on many of these women and there are many still to be mentioned. This week, I’m featuring another past member who first cracked the glass ceiling of church leadership, in her denomination, at the age of 67; then she smashed it aged 78. I’m referring to Reverend Elizabeth Alfred who achieved many firsts as she patiently overcame the constraints that limited her call to ministry.
When Elizabeth Alfred was National President of ACW, 1981–83, she was a deaconess for the Anglican Church, but she longed to be ordained as an Anglican priest. Just days before she commenced her term as National President, members of ACW were the first to celebrate with her when the vote for ordination of women was successful at the General Synod in 1981. It would be another long eleven years before Elizabeth became the first woman to be ordained as a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne in 1992.
Deaconess Elizabeth Alfred was a valued member of ACW, particularly in the Victorian Unit where she served two terms as the Vic. Unit President: 1971–72 and 1980–81. In the ACW National Archives there is a National President’s profile for Elizabeth. This profile tells us:
‘Mary Elizabeth Alfred was born in Yarrawonga, one of seven children of Jessie and William Alfred. Educated in Bairnsdale and Bendigo, she was awarded a scholarship to Girton Church of England Girls Grammar School [CEGGS]. In 1924 she joined Brownies which led to a life-long involvement in the Guiding movement. At the age of 17 Elizabeth felt the call to ministry and, not long after that, left the public service to test her vocation. After professional training at Deaconess House, and classes at Ridley and Trinity Colleges with men, she became a Deaconess on St Thomas Day 1944.
‘Elizabeth worked at Brighton Children’s Home, St Mark’s Fitzroy, the Mission of St James and St John, Kedesh Home for Unmarried Mothers, Fairhaven Hospital, and St Agnes’ Girls Home Glenroy. Christ Church South Yarra and St James’ Dandenong followed, the latter being a vibrant and exciting parish with a diverse community.
‘In 1957–58 she travelled to Britain, working as a tutor at an ecumenical College in Selly Oak. On her return to Australia, she taught at Girton CEGGS and then became Principal of Deaconess House in 1961. The Girls’ Friendly Society, Mothers’ Union Councils, and Chaplaincy at Fairfield and the Royal Women’s Hospital all benefited from Elizabeth’s contribution. [She was the first full-time chaplain at the Royal Women’s Hospital.]
‘In ACW, Elizabeth became President of the Victorian Unit in 1971–1972 and again in 1980–1981. From 1981–1983 she was National President of ACW. She later joined the Soroptimists and the Lyceum Club. With a renewed interest in Guides, she served on their State Council, representing them at ACW.
‘Elizabeth supported the ordination of women to the Anglican Priesthood, and was a member of General Synod which, in 1981, finally voted for this to happen. She travelled straight from Sydney to Hobart to attend the ACW Conference, arriving during a session.
“I entered the room, the women looked at me and I shouted ‘We won! We won!’” There was much loud cheering and clapping. Elizabeth was ordained Deacon in 1986, and Priest in December 1992.
‘She loved travel and led pilgrimages to the Holy Land. Retiring to Carrum Downs Settlement, she became involved in the life of the community, assisting with services both there and at St James’ Dandenong, until 1995. On 10 January 2014, the Reverend Elizabeth Alfred presided at the Eucharist at St James’ Dandenong, on her 100th birthday – a little frail in body, but strong in voice.
‘She died on 2 February 2015, and as she says in her autobiography Called to Serve – “I’ve had a wonderful life!”’
Even at the age of 100, Revd Elizabeth Alfred continued to achieve historic goals when she presided at Holy Communion on her 100th birthday. TMA, The Melbourne Anglican news site, reports that she was probably the first priest to do this.
We salute Reverend Mary Elizabeth Alfred who was born on 10 January 1914 and passed away at 101 years of age, after climbing and conquering the slippery slopes of another peak of gender inequality that claimed to be the domain of males only.
Records of the ACW National Archives.
TMA, The Melbourne Anglican news site http://tma.melbourneanglican.org.au/parishes/elizabeth-alfred-plaque-240816
If you have a photo of Revd Elizabeth Alfred that is of a far better quality than ACW's copy, it would be greatly appreciated if we could be permitted to use it on this blog.