By DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI
The “Houses of Worship” series spotlights local religious organizations. General information about the church is below. If you have religion news you think we should spotlight, please send to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
A former registered nurse, and first female rector and the first gay priest of The Episcopal Church of St. James in Montclair will soon be honored for her service to the community. That one person is the Rev. Melissa Hall.
Hall will be honored at the Montclair Ambulance Unit’s (MAU) annual St. Patrick’s Day Benefit at the Commonwealth Club at 26 Northview Ave. on Friday, March 1.
The reverend said she cannot wrap her head around the thought that she will be the honoree.
Hall has served as the rector of St. James church for the past five years, and the congregants have been very welcoming to her, she said: “I love this congregation, love the people in it and they want to do good.”
About five years ago, St. James did a coat drive with the Montclair Fire Department: Montclair Fire Chief John Hermann is also a board member of the MAU.
The church made a commitment that over 21 percent of their collections would go to local outreach, including the MAU, MESH (Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless) and Lamp for Haiti.
Hall doesn’t do it all herself, she said, and believes the church’s community involvement is why she is being honored. “The church and the volunteers feel the spirit and they move,” she remarked.
The MAU “touches me because I was a nurse first. No judgement, ‘you need something I’ll bring all I have’, no politics; how much money you have doesn’t matter,” she said. Hall was a registered nurse for 25 years, before she became a priest in the Episcopal Church.
The church has also expressed solidarity with social movements: last year, more than 2,000 people attended a rally on their front lawn, where there was a T-shirt memorial for the victims of the Parkland shooting.
“The church is trying very hard to be in this community; not be a fancy church in the square marked with hedges and the lawn. The door is always open. That is why the ambulance corps applauds us,” Hall said.
CARING FOR BODIES AND SOULS
Hall was an interim priest at St. James when the congregation, the Wardens and the Vestry board made an appeal to the bishop to keep her. The church interviewed 11 candidates and chose her as their rector. “They love me and I love them right back,” Hall said.
Through nursing, she learned how to love people, and discovered how to have a sense of humor about the world, she said: “You learn how to get over yourself, not everything is under control. When people face death, depression, you get very intimate, you are present with them. And [I learned] to stay calm,” she said.
Hall was the children’ nursing administrator at then Newark Beth Israel Hospital in the 1990s. She cared for many children dying of AIDS and sickle cell anemia who were in or below the poverty level. “It taught me about myself and the world,” she said.
While at the hospital, she met a dying 10-year-old girl who noticed that Hall wasn’t happy and told her, ‘If you don’t like what you are doing, leave.” Hall took some time off. “The 10-year-old died. It got me to start thinking, don’t do things for the wrong reasons, and [don’t] waste time,” she said.
Although it crossed her mind, she never put serious thought into becoming a priest until her time off from the hospital. After she realized her true calling she went to seminary.
When not at the church, Hall enjoys spending time with her family, her partner of 38 years, Fran Lapinski, and their grown daughter Katherine. The church, she said, is “a job, and it’s a way of life. The lines get blurry sometimes, I have to be mindful.”
Hall is also a poet, and creates abstract art both tangible and paintings. She collects old wood from the Hudson River, and creates little homes with photos inside them and writes a story around that image.
When she is not creating art she is watching home repair shows because “they start out as chaos and something beautiful happens.” Its symbolic of her vocation. “I look at what needs to be fixed and make beauty out of it,” she said.
The church hires people with special needs to run their The Sky’s the Limit Thrift shop. “Everybody is respected and given the dignity they deserve,” she said.
Hall said she is surprised, but grateful for the honor, “I’m a little embarrassed that they want to honor me. I’m the enzyme, the church dedicates themselves to Montclair, to this country, to help make it a better place,” she said.
Hall told her congregation she is only the “frontman.”
She said if everyone just does a little something to help, “the world gets better.”
Annual St. Patrick’s Day Benefit
To support the Montclair Ambulance Unit
26 Northview Ave.
Friday, March 1, 7-11 p.m.
For information visit mvau.org