The Rev. Laura Inscoe, the new rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, walks through a graveyard on her way to work each Sunday before she opens the church doors.
"George Wythe, who signed the Declaration of Independence, and Eliza Poe, Edgar Allan Poe's mother, are buried here," Inscoe says. "When I walk this path, I'm surrounded by a sense of quiet and solitude, but I'm not alone. I'm usually immersed in the life of the parish, so I don't stop as often as I should to reflect on how amazing it is that I'm here."
That is a serious understatement. The current church was built in 1741, but its roots reach back to 1611, when the Henrico Parish was formed. In 1775, the Second Virginia Convention, during which Patrick Henry delivered his famous "Give me liberty or give me death" speech, was held at the church, with the Rev. Miles Selden, rector of St. John's, serving as chaplain. Inscoe, 55, the first woman in 400 years to pastor the parish, was installed on Oct. 19, 2009.
Her love for the job is apparent. A smile dances across her face often, especially when she talks about the path that led her to St. John's. Her parents, Richmonders of Armenian heritage, were a large influence.
"My paternal grandmother used to tell my father, ‘You should get down on your knees and kiss the ground because you live in a free country.' I've never forgotten that." When World War II broke out, Inscoe's father, Ernest Dervishian, enlisted. He received the Congressional Medal of Honor for overtaking three German machine-gun nests and singlehandedly arresting some 40 Germans.
"He would turn over in his grave if he heard me say that," Inscoe adds with a laugh. "He was so modest."
Inscoe earned an English degree at the University of Virginia and a law degree at the University of Richmond before joining her father's legal practice in 1980. Like her two sisters, Inscoe sang in church choirs for years. She also performed with the Richmond Symphony Chorus and credits her love of music to her mother, a soloist in local churches.
In 1993, Laura Dervishian married the Rev. W. Ray Inscoe, a Presbyterian minister and director of pastoral care at Westminster Canterbury, Richmond. The bride-to-be, an Episcopalian, agreed to switch denominations, but once she was married, she found that she just couldn't leave her church. "My husband accuses me of baiting and switching," she says, laughing.
Eventually, Inscoe's professional work got in the way of her church work. She says there was no bolt of lightning from God but that her call to the ministry gradually unfolded over years of volunteer service.
"It was more that I realized my spiritual life was more meaningful to me, and that's what I was meant to be."
After seminary, Inscoe served as the associate rector at St. Mary's Episcopal Church from 2002 to 2009. When she applied to St. John's, there was no discussion about whether a woman could guide the church, which now has about 200 members and two Sunday services.
"We didn't really talk about my gender at all," Inscoe notes. "Although I knew it would be an historic event for me to come here, what they were looking for was a parish priest who could bring energy and enthusiasm … who could preach in a way that would engage people and inspire people."
Inscoe continues, "I feel strongly that God prepared me for being at St. John's. We believe that whoever you are, and wherever you are in your spiritual journey, you are welcome here. I think of the clergymen who have led this flock, and it's an awesome responsibility."
She pauses, before adding, "I think God doesn't call the equipped — God equips the called."
©Nancy Wright Beasley. All rights reserved 2010.