For 27 years, Rev. Brenda Husson, the rector of St. James’ Church on Madison Avenue at East 71st Street on the Upper East Side, has shared her “great, great passion” of teaching and preaching the Bible to the more than 1,500 parishioners at the historic Episcopal place of worship.
Despite a 40 year career in the ministry, she concedes she did not start out planning to attend seminary. “I was raised in the Episcopal Church and it was very important to my family growing up,” she said of her childhood in Upstate New York, “but also like a lot of young people, I went off to college and didn’t think much about it.”
Except that she found herself drawn to classes that highlighted some of the “wonderful work” that the church was doing particularly in some of the poorest places in the world, and on graduation accepted her first job at Bread for the World, a Christian advocacy organization working to end hunger, and based in Manhattan at the time. That was in 1977.
“I did that, then decided I needed to learn a little bit more about theology, so I went to Union [Theological Seminary by Columbia University],” she said, “and it was in seminary that I fell in love with the Bible.”
Yet even then, the idea of being a senior church leader was not in her plans. “Along the way people kept saying, ‘Have you ever thought of becoming a priest or minister?’ and I was dismissive for a while, then I began to think ‘Maybe...’”
Husson has not looked back since. In the years since she was ordained during the mid-1980s, she has worked in various positions in ministry including appointments on the Upper West Side, as associate rector at St. James for several years, and in interim ministry roles in parishes in Westchester before being called back to the more than 200-year-old St. James’ Church as Rector in 1996.
She loves what she does. It is an incredibly busy “non-stop” role where she is involved right along with all the church’s clergy in pastoral care, neighborhood outreach, and counseling in addition to the teaching and preaching responsibilities of her position. “There is not a lot of extra time, but it’s time well spent – if I’m spending that time meeting with someone who is really having a very difficult time, or going over to the hospital, or taking communion to someone who is homebound.”
Husson says St. James is a “genuinely welcoming church” and first-visitors regularly share that sentiment with her.
“One of the things that I really like about the church is it is one of the very few places where people of different ages, people of different genders, people of different economic status, come together,” she said. During communion, “they are all at the rail kneeling before God, and all have their hands out...willing to say we need God, and we need each other. That exists nowhere else; it is an extraordinary thing.”
Like all houses of worship, the pandemic with its restrictions on in person worship in the early days posed new challenges at St. James.
“The pandemic pushed us to provide our parishioners with the opportunity to join us for worship online, something we’d discussed for a long time,” said Rev. Husson. “The pandemic made it happen and that continues to be a gift to homebound parishioners or those who are traveling. We also had to reimagine some of our programs for our neighbors–for example making meals ‘to go’ rather than a sit down meal. It was hardest regarding children’s participation in worship. Online doesn’t really work for younger children and some weekday programs for children and families were paused. We’re trying to help parishioners and families rebuild the ‘habit’ of regular church participation,” she said.
“Most of our activities are again in person. Worship is at about 70 percent of pre-pandemic numbers and happily new members are finding us even as regular parishioners return.”
In February of 2022, Husson wrote her parishioners of her intent to retire, and the church is now in the final phase of a new rector search. In her letter she said she never imagined the long tenure she has had and how she has “loved and continue to love” serving among them.
Husson and her husband, Tom Faulkner, a sculptor and retired Episcopal priest, have lived on the Upper East Side neighborhood near the church for the past 27 years. They have a young adult son, Christopher.
Asked for the biggest highlight of her as the steward of the historic church and congregation, she says she could not pick just one highlight.
She said she “I can’t pick a moment from over 26 years. But, Easter at St. James is always glorious and [it’s] the Sunday I most love.”
As the rector, who loves the theater and goes as often as her schedule allows, prepares for a new season of rest and leisure on retirement, we imagine she will now have lots of free time to enjoy the arts that New York City offers. Maybe.
I can’t pick a moment from over 26 years. But Easter at St. James is always glorious and [it’s] the Sunday I most love.” Rev. Brenda Husson, when asked for the single biggest highlight as the rector of St. James.