Freelance minister’s religious quest has led her outside the church

Last modified: 12/16/2012 1:04:26 AM
A painting of St. Therese hangs in Terry Donovan Odell’s office, the same painting that hung above her bed all the time she was growing up. The young saint’s pink cheeks pick up the rosy hues of this little room with its floral print sofa and view of Odell’s garden, a room that has become, to Odell, a sacred place. And a quote by the beloved 19th-century heroine informs Odell’s very modern-day ministry: “I have found my place in the church, and that is love.”

After decades of struggling to find her own place in the church, Odell has stepped outside the bounds of organized religion and started a freelance ministry. She has no building, no staff, no parish. She answers to no authority and follows no creed except the one she has written for herself. Her cathedral is her home, and her one guiding principle is love.

“I believe in a table that everyone can come to,” said Odell, a silvery-haired woman dressed in a pink sweater, a heart pendant at her chest. It’s hard to deny that her face has something of the same beatific glow apparent in the painting she treasures. Perhaps it’s simply an aura of contentment, perhaps something deeper.

Odell describes it this way: “When you know you’re in the right place, there’s an energy that happens.”

Like St. Therese, she uses the word “place” metaphorically here. Odell’s “place” can be anywhere from her Penacook home to a cemetery to a prison to a family’s backyard. In the four years since she left

the Roman Catholic Church and became an ordained interfaith minister, Odell has forged her own way, officiating at weddings and funerals, visiting the sick, organizing support groups, writing blessings, teaching classes, speaking at workshops and creating special, customized ceremonies for the large – and growing – demographic that makes up much of her ministry.

“There’s a huge number of people in our culture that are no longer within their religious traditions. A lot of people are describing themselves as spiritual but not religious,” Odell said. “If a person doesn’t fit within an organized system of belief, where do they go? How do we pastor our own souls?”

Confronting these questions herself was no easy task for Odell. Born and raised in Concord, she attended St. Peter’s Church from infancy and never missed a Mass. A sensitive, spiritual child, she adored the ritual and tradition that bathed her when she walked into the old building. But as she grew older, that same sensitivity led her to question some of the church’s deeply held beliefs. She was troubled by the idea of hell and paralyzed by the rules and regulations that seemed to dictate her every move and thought.

“I read labels long before it was fashionable in an attempt to make sure I was not unwittingly ingesting meat on Friday, surely a ticket to the ‘Fiery Forever,’ ” Odell relates in a book she wrote and published in 2010, Departing Church in Search of God.

Odell also became deeply bothered by the designated role of women, both in the parish and in leadership. Her first little act of rebellion was at her wedding in 1971, when she refused to say the word “obey” in her marriage vows. Still, the church remained a treasured and integral part of her life. She continued to attend St. Peter’s with her husband and two children and taught religion classes at her alma mater, Bishop Brady High School, for more than 30 years.

It was her students’ earnest questions and musings that finally uncapped her own doubts and frustrations. She remembers in particular a young man who questioned her about her life’s work. “He came up to me after class and he said, ‘I have had you for a teacher for almost half a year now, and I perceive you to be a woman of justice and equality, and yet you teach at an exclusive school and you belong to what I consider one of the most exclusive organizations in the world. This confuses me,’ ” Odell recalled, quoting almost verbatim the words that struck her heart. “After that, I knew I was forever changed.”

It was not, however, an instantaneous change. Odell eventually resigned from the school, got her master’s degree in theology and began to work as a pastoral associate in her parish. The work thrilled her but continued to highlight all the things she couldn’t do and all the things she simply could no longer believe in.

“It was not a crisis of faith. It was a crisis of institution,” Odell recalled.

The crisis came to a head at a Mass of Remembrance for Odell’s mother, who passed away in 2006. During the service, a female lector began a reading from Ephesians instructing women to be submissive to their husbands. Odell was outraged that such words were still being read from the pulpit. She never attended another Mass.

With organized religion behind her, Odell began working as a spiritual care counselor in an acute care hospital. There she met an interfaith minister who began gently urging her to get ordained. At first she brushed off the idea, but one day she began to picture herself in the role of a minister and started to weep.

“Within weeks I was accepted into the seminary,” Odell said.

With the encouragement of her husband, Odell attended the New Seminary in New York City and was ordained as an interfaith minister in 2008.

This new calling, however, did not mean throwing out everything she’d held dear. The painting of St. Therese remained on her wall. Tradition and ritual remained an important part of this freer, more open spirituality she had chosen.

When she officiates at funerals, weddings, baby dedications and other special events, Odell works closely with the family to design a ceremony that is inclusive, meaningful and unique. Often she blends elements of different faith traditions that are important to different family members. At other times, the family desires something that’s free of references to God and religion but still feels sacred.

Recently, Odell was asked to officiate at a dedication ceremony of sorts for two young children whose family had no church affiliation. They planted trees, read poetry and observed an “Ancestral Remembrance” at the family’s home.

Odell also works with people individually, counseling them through difficult times and helping them create their own spirituality. “I try to help people see the sacred in their daily rituals,” Odell said.

These rituals can be anything from a daily walk in the woods to a moment spent watching a baby sleep, said Odell, whose personal spiritual ritual is making fudge. One of her favorite varieties to make for people who are going through a difficult time is a recipe passed down from her mother that calls for just a hint of lemon. “It intensifies the flavor,” she said.

One thing that’s missing, as yet, from Odell’s ministry is the sense of community that draws many people to church. She hopes to find ways to create a community out of the patchwork of ministries she performs, and she’s starting to see the beginnings of a community in the work that she does at Blossom Hill Cemetery. Last year she held a ceremony to dedicate infant grave markers that had recently been identified by the city. Out of that event came an annual infant loss ceremony, and earlier this month Odell held a “Blue Holiday” ceremony at the cemetery, designed for people whose losses have made the holidays an emotionally difficult time.

Much of Odell’s work centers on suffering and death, a responsibility she has learned to embrace. “Suffering is a common denominator,” said Odell, who is planning a February workshop to help people design their own end-of-life celebration. “If we could get ‘real’ around that – wow.”

Expending so much energy on tragedy and loss has certainly not sapped Odell of her own joy. “I happen to believe that we come to earth with things to do,” she said. “I’m doing what I was put on this earth to do. It just took me 60 years to find it.”

(Interfaith minister Terry Donovan Odell can be reached at 856-6540 or

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