Reverend Kate Wesch is joining St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex at the end of this month. Wesch is currently rector of St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Seattle, and will move to Connecticut with her husband, mother, daughter and son. In conversation with the Connecticut Examiner, Wesch shares what made her fall in love with Essex and how she hopes to build community amid a pandemic. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you come across the role at St. John’s in Essex?
We have not spent much time in Connecticut at all, but we do know some people in the area. We have a friend in Hartford who spent time in Essex who told me about the position when it opened. The friend has kids who are similar ages to my kids, and answered a lot of my questions about the area in a way that really made it sound like something that could be great for us.
Where are you moving from, and what made Essex feel like it could be home?
We’ve been in Seattle for 15 years. It’s a big city that has changed quite a bit over that time, and we’ve been longing for a smaller town. We love nature, so we want to be able to go hiking and be near the woods, but also still be close to big cities. As we dreamed about where we might move at some point, when we heard about Essex and this church, it seemed to check a lot of boxes.
My husband and I both grew up in smaller towns in the midwest, and we remember that in our childhoods, we were able to hop on our bikes with friends and ride through the park. Living in a dense, urban area, those aren’t things our kids can do here. Our kids don’t have that same freedom and independence.
Have you been able to see Essex in person?
My husband and I came to visit Essex in early November, and while we were there we had a pizza dinner in downtown Chester, and we saw kids out walking together on their own. We really felt that small-town community feeling. It felt like we could be here and people will know our kids, and if they get into trouble, they’ll give us a call. Talking to people at the church who have raised kids, that’s what they described. This is the kind of community where people look out for each other, know each other, and that sense of community really appeals to us.
We spent a few nights at the Griswold Inn, and drove all over the area, so we got to see the church and the neighborhood. It was enough that we got a good feel for the area and could see ourselves here. The people we met at the church and coffee shops and the Griswold Inn, the warmth in the community was very appealing. On the airplane on the way back, we felt like yes, this is definitely a place we could see ourselves.
What inspired you to join the priesthood, and what is it about St. John’s that made you feel like it was a good fit?
I’ve wanted to be a priest since I was a child. I grew up in the church in Oklahoma, even as a small child, I remember watching the priest at my church behind the altar and always having this sense of, this is what I want to be when I grow up. When I finished college, I went to seminary, and I’ve been a priest since I was 25. I love being able to gather community, bring people together, see people be transformed, and send people out to transform the world. There’s no better job. To be invited into people’s lives at the most vulnerable, tender moments of deaths and births and marriages and baptisms, it’s fantastic.
I haven’t been able to meet many people at St. John’s, and it’s all either been over Zoom or masked and socially distant in person. The people I’ve talked with and met have all been so open and sharing of themselves and their stories and their faith. It really drew me to the church and made me excited to work with them and pray with them and be among them.
How has the pandemic changed how you build community?
We’ve really had to get creative. From the very beginning, we’ve done connection groups, where we joined people in small groups of four or five people. Some have been meeting on Zoom, some text regularly, some in the summer were doing outdoor meetings on the beach for coffee. We’ve been intentionally connecting the congregation so they can check on one another. I check in on the conveners of each group so I can quickly figure out how 80 people are doing by talking to a few conveners. That scale has helped us as our building has been closed. I don’t have to make 100 phone calls every week, but I can email leaders of the groups and know if someone’s had a medical emergency or there’s something going on. I think it’s brought people together even more than before, and they’ve really gotten to know one another and learn what’s going on in each other’s lives. I heard people say at the end of the year that the connection group was the best part of 2020.
We also realized early on that we had families completely stressed out, with parents working from home and kids doing remote learning. We also had a lot of retired people who had too much time on their hands. Our staff here worked to bridge the gap between those two things with an ongoing program called Secret Saints, where we matched people who have time who want to do something with people who are overwhelmed. A retired person might drop a care package for a family with bubbles and chalk and flowers and chocolate, with a note that it’s from your Secret Saint. People went crazy, they loved it. We expanded it to include elderly people who are isolated in nursing homes or care facilities where they would allow us to drop things off at reception, so started doing secret saint deliveries there as well. Once I arrive in Essex, I’ll work with everyone at St. John’s to figure out what more we can do so people can gather and still feel like part of a community.