Havre Daily News
After nearly six years without a resident pastor, St. Mark's Episcopal Church has a minister it can call its own.
The Rev. Gail Wheatley, a Great Falls native, led her first service in the historic church at 539 Third Ave. on Oct. 2.
“It's wonderful,” said Betty Grant, church secretary. “We've had her for seven weeks, and she's doing great. She's part of the church family.”
While this is the first time Wheatley has called Havre home, the community and especially the church hold a special place in her life and her own family's history.
“Both sides of my family are from Havre - the Fortins and the Brennas,” Wheatley said. “My parents were married in this church in 1949.”
Wheatley's mother, Fay Brenna Fortin, is widowed and lives in Great Falls. And though Wheatley's father, Bob Fortin, is dead, his presence remains a tangible part of St. Mark's.
“One of the three stained- glass windows on the north wall was installed and dedicated to him in 1969,” she said.
It seems appropriate, then, that St. Mark's is Wheatley's first church following her ordination.
Her father worked with the passenger service of New York Central Railway, which morphed into Penn Central and eventually became Amtrak, Wheatley said. As a result, she spent her youth in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and New York.
Wheatley's father died in 1968, and her mother moved the family to Great Falls in 1969. Wheatley graduated from Great Falls High School. “I'm a Bison learning how to be a Blue Pony,” she said.
“I feel very blessed to be here,” she said. “My journey here has been many years in the making and been a journey where I have felt the strong presence of God in his call to minister and his call to this particular church.
“I am honored to have been called by St. Mark's, and it is a joy to be in Havre. I look forward to our ministry to God's people in Havre.”
Wheatley graduated with a master's degree in divinity from the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., on May 2. She was ordained as a deacon on Sept. 18 in Miles City. She must serve as a deacon for at least six months before being ordained as an Episcopalian priest.
That ordination is planned to take place March 6 in the Havre church.
Wheatley and her husband, Doug, have two sons - Brian, 21, and Andrew, 19. Andrew is a student at the University of Evansville in Indiana majoring in sound design in the university's theater tech program. Each son is musical, both instrumentally and vocally, she said. “We're hoping Andrew will play (trumpet) for us when he's home for Christmas,” Wheatley said.
Wheatley's ministry will be centered at St. Mark's, but she will lead services in Fort Benton and try to get involved with the community at large.
“I'll be serving only at St. Mark's and providing services, probably twice a month, in Fort Benton at St. Paul's beginning later this month,” Wheatley said.
Right now, she said, the Havre church averages about 20 parishioners a service.
“We're eager to see it grow,” she said. “The congregation has very, very faithful members who have worked to keep the church alive.
“It's been almost six years since a minister was here, so we're eager to continue the ministry of St. Mark's and be an active and visible member of the community.”
The position came open when the Rev. Kenn Green moved away. The congregation searched for a replacement and finally found Wheatley.
“We've been looking (for a priest),” Grant said. “We just had trouble. It just worked out she wanted us and we wanted her. Our prayers were answered.”
Wheatley said the number of women in the Episcopal clergy is growing.
“In the Diocese of Montana, I would guess that close to 50 percent of the clergy are women in the Episcopal Church,” she said.