The Rev’d Alison Cheek, 29 July 1974, and the day that changed the Anglican Church

Elaine Lindsay

“Imagine”, writes Maureen Fiedler, “a church service so controversial that police officers are stationed down the street and throughout the congregation. People trained in crowd control and karate are scattered in the pews. Buckets are lined up along the church walls in case of bombs or fire.”

This was the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia. The occasion? The ordination of eleven women as priests – The Philadelphia Eleven.  One of these women was from Adelaide, Alison Cheek.

Alison Mary Western was born in 1927, attended Methodist Ladies’ College, graduated from the University of Adelaide, and ended up in the United States when her husband, Bruce Cheek, was hired by the World Bank in Washington D.C..  In 1963, she was one of the first two women admitted into the Master of Divinity program at Virginia Theological Seminary, graduating in 1969.  In 1970 the Episcopal Church admitted women as deacons and Cheek, encouraged by her rector, was ordained as a deacon in 1972.  The General Conventions of the Episcopal Church, however, voted against women’s ordination as priests in 1970 and then again in 1973, prompting Cheek to join with others seeking change.

On 29 July 1974 Cheek and ten other women were ordained “irregularly” by three retired bishops.  The senior warden at the Church of the Advocate who served as crucifer for the service was Barbara Harris, who in 1989 became the first woman ordained bishop in the Episcopal Church.

On 10 November 1974 Alison Cheek became the first woman to publicly celebrate the Eucharist in an Episcopal church, having been previously prohibited by the local bishop.  It wasn’t until September 1976 that discrimination on the grounds of gender was barred, to the dismay of many conservatives who argued that “The Episcopal Church’s General Convention has separated itself and all who follow it from Catholic Christendom” (The Daily, 17 September 1976,  On 1 January 1977, Jacqueline Means was first woman canonically ordained and the Philadelphia Eleven were subsequently “regularized” by their individual diocesan bishops.

Alison Cheek remained in the US after her husband died in 1977, becoming a priest at Trinity Memorial Church in Philadelphia.  She returned frequently to Australia, encouraging and supporting members of the Movement for the Ordination of Women, both by example and through her priestly ministry.  She served, in effect, as our bishop well before women achieved significant leadership roles in the Australian church.  Cheek died in 2019, in her home in North Carolina (


some of the first women to be ordained in the Anglican Communion
Pictured here are some of the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church. First row, from left, Alison Palmer and Lee McGee. Middle row, Nancy Wittig, Alison Cheek and Merrill Bittner. Back row, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward and Marie Moorefield Fleischer. (Alison Palmer and Lee McGee were ordained in Washington in 1975.) The picture was taken at Episcopal Divinity School in May 2004 during a celebration of the life and courage of the Rt. Rev. Robert DeWitt.


A documentary, The Philadelphia Eleven, was released in the US in 2023:  MOW encourages Australian dioceses to secure screening rights here, too, given the very significant role played by Alison Cheek in opening up leadership roles for women across the Anglican communion.

Also of interest is a revised and expanded 50th anniversary edition of Darlene O’Dell’s 2014 book, The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven, to be published by Church Publishing (

Rev'd Alison Cheek, photographed in Sydney in January 2011.
Rev’d Alison Cheek, photographed by Elaine Lindsay, in Sydney in January 2011.




The Philadelphia Eleven:  This entry includes a solid reading list.

The Philadelphia Eleven film (2023).

Bromberger, Brian. (8 March 2024). ‘A Look Back At “The Philadelphia Eleven”: A Profile in Courage and Change’. Review of the film.

Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. (2014). ‘Remembering the Philadelphia 11.’ A conversation with Bishop Greg Rickel, the Rev’d Sarah Monroe and the Rev’d Canon Janet Campbell on the 40th Anniversary.

Episcopal Parish Network. (2023). ‘The Philadelphia Eleven: Courage and Change’. A conversation about the making of the film “The Philadelphia Eleven: Courage and Change”. Includes filmmaker Margo Guernsey and the Rev’d Nancy Wittig, one of the Eleven.

Fieldler, Maureen. (2014). ‘Celebrating the Philadelphia 11, 40 Years Later’. National Catholic Reporter. Includes links to interviews with Emily Hewitt and Darlene O’Dell.

‘The First Female Priests in the Episcopal Church, Forty Years Later’. (2014). Interfaith Voices

Kujawa-Holbrook, Sheryl & Harris, Barbara. (2023). In Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in the Episcopal Church. 15 articles curated from the Anglican and Episcopal History journal.

Mank, Kathy. (30 October 2014). ‘The Philadelphia Eleven: A Day of Celebration and Remembrance’. National Episcopal Church Women.

Manning, Kay. (17 June 2018). ‘Episcopal women recall 1974 priesthood struggle’. Chicago Tribune.

O’Dell, Darlene. (2014). The Story of the Philadelphia Eleven. Seabury Books

Revised edition (2024)

O’Dell, Darlene. (2014). Talk on The Philadelphia Eleven. Water

Wolfman-Arent, Avi. (15 December 2013). ‘The First female Episcopal priests were ordained in a North Philly church’.


The Rev’d Alison Cheek:


Episcopal Church Archives:

The vote for ordination in the Episcopal Church

Press release, ‘Eleven Women Ordained Episcopal Priests’, 31 July 1974.

Author: Elaine Lindsay