Rev. Constance Chandler-Ward dies; ex-Wellesley College chaplain cofounded retreat center in Maine

Rev. Chandler-Ward helped run Greenfire retreat center.
Rev. Chandler-Ward helped run Greenfire retreat center.

Aging brings inevitable losses, the Rev. Constance Chandler-Ward said in an interview posted on a blog a couple of years ago, not long after she turned 80, though such experiences open other doors.

Her own life energy was “expanding my awareness of everything,” she told blogger Pat Taub for the Women’s Older Wisdom website. “I’m also aware of what’s lost — not just friends and loved ones, but my memory. I have trouble with names. I see this as a gift in that it becomes an introduction to mystery, rather than knowing.”

For those who live long enough to be old, Rev. Chandler-Ward added, “all that’s left is mystery. The world is bigger. Boundaries disappear. Mystery is present when language and images fall away. Then one moves from looking at a particular thing to its essence.”


On the afternoon of April 2, while driving along Route 1 in Warren, Maine, she apparently experienced heart difficulties, her family said. Rev. Chandler-Ward, who was 82, died after her car crossed into the path of an oncoming tractor-trailer, authorities told local newspapers.

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She had moved to the village of Tenants Harbor, Maine, at the beginning of the 1990s, after serving for about a decade as chaplain of Wellesley College. With two other women who, like her, were Episcopal priests, Rev. Chandler-Ward opened and ran the nonprofit Greenfire retreat center for women.

“Greenfire came from our commitment to do deep, inner work in the context of circles of women, beginning with our own sisterhood circle and extending out to all with whom we met,” the Rev. Judith Carpenter, a cofounder, said at a memorial service in Maine on April 21.

Rev. Chandler-Ward had the idea of “offering what we called ‘Work-Visions,’ in which three of us would meet with a woman for three sessions of two hours each,” Carpenter added. “We would listen closely to her work-life questions and struggles, seeking to offer back to her what we were each hearing so that she could more clearly and deeply hear herself.”

The collaborative nature of their spiritual work with women was much in keeping with Rev. Chandler-Ward’s character. Arjo Klamer, who had been an assistant professor at Wellesley while she was chaplain, spoke at the service of “her shyness, her dislike of being photographed – oh gosh, how glad she must be that she does not have to be here. She hated to be the center of attention.”


And yet “she had a wonderful way of interacting with people, especially one-on-one and in small circles,” said her brother David Chandler of Ashfield, a former Globe science writer. “And I think many, many people through the years felt strongly influenced by those interactions.”

Sarah Chandler-Ward of Haydenville said that when she thinks of her mother, “the words that come to mind are wisdom and grace. She was always a very solid, still presence for people.”

In the Women’s Older Wisdom interview, Rev. Chandler-Ward said she was “happy to pass along my life experiences, but without adding value to them,” and added: “I don’t want to carry the tag of ‘elder.’ It feels too judgmental — passing on wisdom I decide is important.”

A poem she wrote included the lines: “Now I am old./Now a few of my coverings crumble.”

The third of five siblings, Constance Chandler was born in Cambridge. Her mother, the former Ruth Doggett, was a civil rights activist in places including Selma, Ala., and Chicago. Her father, the Rev. Edgar Chandler, was a United Church of Christ minister who for a time directed refugee services in Geneva for the World Council of Churches.


With her sister and brothers, Connie Chandler grew up in Switzerland, where the family had “a diverse mix of people from all parts of the world — all languages, all cultures, all religions — around us all the time,” David said.

She graduated from Trinity College in Dublin with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s, and went to Yale Divinity School, from which she graduated with a master’s in divinity in 1961.

That same year she married David Ward, who graduated from Berkeley Divinity School, which also was in New Haven. They combined their last names.

David was ordained in 1965, before the Episcopal Church allowed women to serve as priests. He also was an actor, playwright, and poet. “They made an odd pair,” Klamer said. “He sought the public attention that she was running away from.”

When she was ordained in 1977 in Charlottesville, Va., Rev. Chandler-Ward told a local newspaper that allowing women to serve as priests was “a necessary and important movement in the Episcopal Church. The ministry must be performed by all people who feel called to it.”

Though she was among the first women to be ordained, “the church never gave her a full rectorship anywhere,” said her daughter, who noted that in her early years as a priest, Rev. Chandler-Ward mostly served “an assistant rector to my father” at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville and Grace Episcopal Church in Providence.

Sarah added that in the 1980s, her mother “took it upon herself to rewrite” Episcopal liturgy, “to change the language so that it wasn’t gender exclusive.” In Rev. Chandler-Ward’s rendering, “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost became Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit so that it conveyed the meaning without the gender,” Sarah recalled.

Rev. David Chandler-Ward died of cancer in 1984 at age 52.

By then, Rev. Constance Chandler-Ward was the Wellesley College chaplain. In 1990, she delivered the invocation at the ceremony when then-first lady Barbara Bush delivered the commencement address.

“Help us, oh God, who is love itself, to love ourselves and our connection to each other beyond the limits of race, class, age, sexual preference, and culture, and guide us through the farewells and the completion of this cycle to approach with deep hope whatever is next for us,” Rev. Chandler-Ward said that day.

What was next for her was Greenfire and a move to Tenants Harbor, where Suzanne Chambliss Neil became her longtime partner. Neil died in December 2013.

“For the first time in my life I’m alone, following the death of my partner two years ago,” Rev. Chandler-Ward said in the Women’s Older Wisdom interview. “I find the gift of living alone allows me to be undisturbed. Without the presence of another I am expanding in a new way. There is no one to reflect back to me, so a new aspect of my life is opening.”

A service has been held for Rev. Chandler-Ward, who in addition to her daughter Sarah and brother David leaves her other daughter, Jennifer Chandler-Ward of Cambridge; a sister, Marjorie Chandler of Oxford, England; two other brothers, Hugh Chandler of Urbana, Ill., and Christopher Chandler of Chicago; and three grandchildren.

Rev. Chandler-Ward, participated in church choirs, played instruments, and performed with choral groups in Maine. A lifelong artist, she moved from medium to medium, painting in oils and acrylics and, in Maine, creating sculptures from sea glass and driftwood. She also made a prayer shawl that was used as the altar cloth at her memorial service.

In her poem about aging, she wrote:

Now I am old.

Now I have no use for protection.

I feel most of all what has been feared and refused.

From my heart’s isolated chambers there flows ache and gratitude.

Together they melt into a strange love.

Contact Bryan Marquard at