Unsung Hero: Katharine Babson of Brunswick, priest with a world view

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BRUNSWICK — Katherine Babson was first drawn to the priesthood as a little girl.

“I’d walk into the church and wander around, wondering what the mystery was all about,” she recalled.

Several years later, while a student at Williams College in western Massachusetts, Babson told an administrator she felt called to be a priest. “I didn’t know where that came from, as there were no women priests in the Episcopal Church at the time,” she said.

Soon after that conversation, Babson went along on the first Williams in India program. The experience moved her so much that she briefly considered pursuing a doctorate in Indian art.

Babson did significant volunteer work for an Episcopal Church in Virginia: serving on the Vestry, leading Educational for Ministry groups, and so on.

In 1976, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of women. Several years later, after talking to her rector, Kitty decided to pursue a divinity degree at the Virginia Seminary.

“My husband Brad, who worked for the World Bank, was offered a position in Indonesia, but he turned it down to enable me to get my degree,” Babson said. “I told him I’d follow him if he got another chance to go abroad.”

After completing her degree and working for several churches, Babson followed her husband to Bangkok, Thailand, in 1992 and then to Hanoi, Vietnam. Once in Asia, she reconnected with a seminary friend who had become bishop of one of the Anglican Province of Myanmar’s six dioceses.

Her ministry took a surprising turn in what has become a 20-year long adventure of ministry in tandem with the church in Asia. She served the interdenominational International Church of Bangkok, and then founded a kindred church, The International Church of Hanoi, when she lived in Vietnam. She also introduced The Episcopal Church to the Anglican Church in Myanmar, where she was a novelty: the first woman priest they had ever met.

Returning to the U.S. in 1997, while serving churches in Virginia, she founded Christ Myitta (the Burmese word for “compassion”) Myanmar/Burma to further strengthen ties between The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church in Myanmar, which was severely isolated by the country’s political circumstances. She’s been to Myanmar almost 40 times over the last 20 years.

Babson’s work in Myanmar runs the gamut.

She introduced Episcopal Relief and Development to its ongoing work in Myanmar’s six dioceses. She raises funds to build church based preschools, youth hostels and medical clinics; to develop seminary library collections; and to pipe safe, clean spring water into Myanmar’s most isolated and war-afflicted mountain villages. She finds placements for worthy Myanmar Anglicans to study in Episcopal Church seminaries, and helps develop lucrative cottage industries, which enhance household income for Christian women.

She noted that one of these cottage industries, the Myanmar Mission Jacket Project, has clothed many a Mainer in the colorful hand-woven fabrics of Myanmar while enhancing income with which the Myanmar church has further developed its ministries.

“I love the people and the rootedness of the culture,” Babson explained. “The traditions, the songs, the laughter, the stories which pass down. I love seeing God’s mission play out in another corner of the world.”

Babson’s ministry is not limited to her work in Myanmar. She often serves as a guest preacher in Episcopal and other churches in mid-coast Maine.

She believes that by telling stories of grace from other parts of the world she helps people in Maine recognize the humanity they share with every living being and better grasp the mystery and meaning of faith.

The Islands Church on Bailey Island is one of her favorite places to visit. “They’re inclusive. They welcome everyone. There’s no hierarchy,” Babson said.

Surrey Hardcastle, a member of the Island Church, says, “Kitty is marvelous. She talks about her vast experiences in the world, but she does so as if she were talking to the guy next door. We have a wide range of people in our church, and she can relate to everyone. She recognizes that people are people everywhere.”

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Katherine Babson of Brunswick has been a priest serving the East Asian nation of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, for nearly 30 years.