The Rev. Cathlin Baker was busy. It was something of a day off from activities at West Tisbury’s First Congregational Church, of which she is the new minister. It wasn’t her sermon-writing day. But there was still unpacking to be done at the parsonage in Island Farms. Then Eirene (who was born on St. Patrick’s Day and whose name means “peace” in Greek) needed to be nestled and four-year-old Hardy had to be greeted when he came home from the Rainbow Place preschool in Edgartown. He wanted to garden with his hoe in the back yard and was eager to tell his mother and his father, Bill Eville, all about tending the roses. There was also a daddy longlegs he wanted to point out to them and to his baby sister. His mother and father were interested, but giggling Eirene was much more taken with her brother than his projects.
Cathlin Baker took over the ministry of the more than 400-year-old West Tisbury church in September, arriving on the Vineyard from New York city where she had been the assistant to President Joseph Hough of Union Theological Seminary. There, she had assisted in fundraising and event planning, public relations and strategic planning for the school’s future. The more ministerial part of her job was counseling the seminary’s 300 students on how to they could prepare themselves for the ministry and how one acts as a Christian. It seems a far cry from a major theological school to a small country church, but Cathlin Baker is looking forward to the closeness to community.
She smiles when she tells the story of how she got the city post she just left. She was selected from job candidates in 2005, she says, because the seminary president remembered her from a 1999 encounter, when she was getting her master of divinity degree at the seminary.
“I was looking for housing for 400 poor and homeless people from all over the world who were on a walk from Washington, D.C., to the United Nations to raise international awareness of such economic rights as the right to work, the right to housing, the right to health care. I asked the seminary president if he could help provide it. He told me six years later when I applied for the job as his assistant, that he remembered how that march had been pulled off and all those people gotten over the George Washington Bridge and down Broadway and housed without incident. He figured if I had helped make that happen, I could help him run the seminary.”
That wasn’t the first monumental job for the blonde, petite minister. When her banker-filmmaker husband had made a career change and was studying writing in graduate school at Florida State University in Tallahassee, she was a chaplain at the Big Ben Hospice there. Then she had been assistant minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York’s Greenwich Village where she had devised a project to get churches across the country to support people she felt needed their support. Some were homeless people in Philadelphia trying to acquire a residence to live in. Others were farm workers organizing and fast food company employees protest-marching for higher wages.
“If groups like these needed clergy to show up to support them at a march, we would work to convince a church to provide them,” she says. (She conducted her work as part of a larger employment project at the church started by an East Chop summer resident, the Rev. Paul Chapman.)
Cathlin Baker acquired her social conscience early. She remembers at the age of eight climbing aboard with a busload of League of Women Voters protesters bound for a New York No Nukes rally. A neighbor in North Plainfield, N.J., where she grew up, took her to that first protest march.
But even before and after that, her inclination to help those in need had been born under the influence of her parents.
Her father was employed by the wire service United Press International, not as a journalist but on the business side. Her mother taught music theory and musicology at Rutgers University. “But jobs were just what they did and after that they lived,” she remembers. “And they always were very socially conscious. Helping people was often part of dinner table conversation.”
From her parents, she also acquired a love of music.
“When I was growing up, my Dad sang and played the recorder. Mom played the harpsichord and I played the violin. We sort of specialized in the Baroque period,” she says.
Will she use her musical skills in her new job? “Maybe. If anyone wants me to. I understand the Rev. Elden Mills used to run up to the choir from the pulpit,” she says, “so I guess there has been a precedent.” But just now she feels her violin skills need renewing.
Though Cathlin Baker is a minister of the United Church of Christ, both of her parents were reared as Roman Catholics.
“They left the Catholic church, but all the same, they were always very conscious of the teachings of Christianity,” Cathlin recalls. They wanted their children to be church-connected, but to make their own decisions about what church they wished to belong to.
“As a result, my sister, who is the director of human resources for the Strycker Company that makes prosthetic devices in northern New Jersey, is now Catholic, and my brother, who is a curator at the [National Gallery of Victoria] in Melbourne, Australia is nothing religious while I became a Protestant minister.”
After attending high school in North Plainfield, N.J., Cathlin Baker went to Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., where she received her B.A. in religion in 1990. Then at 26, after a stint in the housing organization for the homeless in Philadelphia, she decided to enroll at Union Theological Seminary — not yet sure whether her principal interest was in the ministry or simply in social service. But soon after her mother’s death in 1997, she felt she had received a call to parish ministry and returned to the theological seminary to work on her master of divinity degree.
In New York, she began dating Bill Eville, a Princeton graduate with longtime Island roots, whom she had known growing up in New Jersey. “On his mother’s side, he was a Harding and the first Harding, we understand, had come to the Vineyard as a whaler in the 1700s. We’ve named our son Harding after the family, though we call him Hardy,” she says.
Later members of the family included William D. Harding who operated a dry goods, boots, shoes and bathing suit store on Circuit avenue in Oak Bluffs in the 1880s and had similar stores in Vineyard Haven and Edgartown. His granddaughter married Clayton Hoyle, who took over the business. He also operated a tackle store near the Oak Bluffs tennis courts after his wife’s death.
Cathlin and Bill were married in 2001. Their first long stay on the Island was in 2002 when his grandmother, Anne Harding, who lived in the family house on Penacook avenue, fell ill and needed help. The young couple stayed for a year at the East Chop house of Cathlin’s old friend, Paul Chapman, so they could be near Mrs. Harding. And Bill, who wanted to change careers and write, began doing just that. Meanwhile Cathlin became a consultant for the National Council of Churches. After his grandmother’s death in 2003, Bill was accepted as a graduate student in a writing program in Tallahassee and the couple quit the Vineyard for the South.
It was at the hospice there that Cathlin got her first real taste of the nurturing ministry she believes is her calling.
“I loved the kind of work I was doing. I was driving around rural Florida visiting all sorts of people. I was pregnant with Hardy at the time and there was one man I was visiting who would say ‘Oh, here’s my little pregnant preacher.’ Then there was a woman who ran an old Florida motel with a big neon sign outside. She was a big fan of the dog track. Her name was Dolly and she was ever so proud that they sold the Dolly Special Sundae at the track that they’d named for her. There were so many wonderful people!”
Bill’s graduate work over, the couple returned to New York — she to the assistant’s job at the theological seminary, he to more film work. But in the back of Cathlin’s mind was always the desire to have a church of her own where she could do the pastoral work she so enjoyed and for which she seemed so fitted. When she heard the West Tisbury church was seeking a new minister, she applied.
The match was duly made and the Evilles — by this time there were four of them — moved to North Tisbury, though Bill continues to commute to New York two days a week to tutor students preparing for the SATs.
How hard is it to blend being a minister with mothering a four-year-old and a six-month old?
“It will all work out when we get babysitters in place,” Cathlin says, “and I think having a young family will really help me to reach younger families in the church as well as the older ones.”