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Trailblazing Sacramento Episcopal priest Winifred Gaines dies at 87

The Rev. Canon Winifred Gaines as State Senate chaplain
The Rev. Canon Winifred Gaines as State Senate chaplain California State Senate

Memorial services are scheduled Friday for the Rev. Canon Winifred B. “Winnie” Gaines, the first female priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California.

The Rev. Canon Gaines, who had suffered strokes in the past few years, died Sept. 30 at the age of 87. Services for the retired priest are scheduled for 7 p.m. Friday at Trinity Cathedral, 2620 Capitol Ave.

“The same attributes as a mother also made her a good priest,” said her son, state Sen. Ted Gaines, R-El Dorado Hills. “She was a loving, nurturing mother. She treated her congregation the same way.”

In addition to being the first woman ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California, the Rev. Canon Gaines was also the first female chaplain of the California State Senate, her son said.

As a priest, she helped those in need, whether though marriage counseling or providing spiritual comfort and guidance to hundreds of Sacramento families in end-of-life situations.

“Pastoral care was her long-suit,” said the Rev. Canon Lynell Walker. “She was the one at the cathedral who visited the sick and dying. She prayed with families. She was extraordinarily good at it.”

Walker said that in the early days of the Rev. Canon Gaines’ life as a member of the clergy, some congregation members avoided receiving communion from the female priest.

“It was not easy for her,” Walker said. “People would calculate where she would stand during the distribution of communion and line up on the other side across from a male. That was the culture, but, because of her efforts, that has changed. It is a total nonissue now.”

In a story by freelance writer Barb Chandler published in The Sacramento Bee in 2001, the Rev. Canon Gaines said she was called to the ministry after a particularly sad moment in her life, the death of her daughter, Mary Louise, in the early 1970s.

“I became aware of my calling to ministry when my 2-year-old daughter died,” the Rev. Canon Gaines said. “While my daughter was sick, I started searching the Bible to find out the meaning of life and death. Her death was a conversion experience for me. Before it, I didn’t want anything to do with organized religion. I thought people who went to church were weak and just needed a crutch, and I didn’t believe I was that type of person.”

After her daughter’s death, she became very involved in the church. In 1973, she approached the bishop of the Northern California diocese and asked to be ordained as a deacon, a position she eventually realized.

“I assumed I would be ordained a deacon because at that time women could not be ordained priests,” the Rev. Canon Gaines said. “However, the bishop wanted me to go to seminary.”

She said that step proved to be advantageous, because, in 1976, the official governing body of the Episcopal Church passed a resolution for the ordination of woman.

To be ordained, however, the Rev. Canon Gaines needed to meet with a special church committee to persuade its members to recommend her to the bishop for ordination. The committee members had their doubts that a woman could be ordained until they met with her, she remembered.

After being ordained, the Rev. Canon Gaines became a hospital chaplain at Mercy San Juan Hospital. She was also assigned to work with terminally ill people in hospice.

“I thought I was going to help other people, but I quickly learned that the people I worked with were the greatest gifts of all,” she said.

The Rt. Rev. Barry L. Beisner, bishop of the Sacramento diocese, on Tuesday lauded her long ministry throughout the diocese and at the midtown Trinity Cathedral.

“Winnie Gaines had a true pastor’s heart,” he said. “It is also true that she was a bold pioneer, but it was because she had a deep and abiding love for the people of God.”

The Rev. Canon Gaines, a native of Sacramento, graduated from Sacramento High School and University of California, Berkeley. She received a masters’ in divinity from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.

She is survived by her husband of 64 years, Robert; her sisters Jennifer Langan, Kitty Davis and Debbie Davis; her children Robert Gaines, Jr., Clare Andrews, Ted Gaines, Peter Gaines and Margaret Hutchinson; 15 grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Remembrances may be sent to the Winnie Gaines Scholarship Fund, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, 2451 Ridge Road, Berkeley, CA 94709-1211.

Bill Lindelof: 916-321-1079, @Lindelofnews

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