"My family didn't grow up with much money, but what we do give, I think we give with great love and with no strings attached."

The Rev. Canon Doris Westfall, T'05
The Rev. Canon Doris Westfall, T'05

When people speak of being “called to the Mountain,” they’re usually referring to a vague sort of Sewanee magic—the mystical allure of the Domain. For the Rev. Canon Doris Westfall, T’05, though, Sewanee has beckoned in a far more concrete way. Westfall grew up in the Episcopal Church, and she says her father deeply admired a priest who graduated from the School of Theology. She vividly recalls a moment during her youth when her father told her, “Maybe someday you will go to college on top of a mountain in Tennessee.”

She acknowledges that her father almost certainly didn’t envision her attending seminary. “He was very against women in the priesthood and almost left the Episcopal Church over it.” Still, his words stayed with her. She says she similarly couldn’t ignore a resounding call to ministry: “From the time I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a priest.” In another defining episode from her childhood, she heard a voice announcing her future vocation. “I literally heard a voice say, clear as a bell, ‘You will be a priest,’” she says. “I remember saying back to this voice, ‘But there aren’t women priests,’ and the voice replying, ‘There will be.’”

Despite these unmistakable signs, a couple of decades passed before Westfall enrolled in seminary—and, even then, she didn’t begin her graduate studies at Sewanee. After earning a degree in psychology from Valparaiso University in 1981 and a master’s of social work from St. Louis University in 1993, she spent seven years in the nonprofit sector. Eventually, the call to the priesthood became too strong to shake, and she entered Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, a seminary of the United Church of Christ.

As eager as Westfall was to pursue an M.Div. close to home, she says she knew almost immediately that Eden wasn’t the best fit. By that time, she was married and had three school-aged boys, making the move to rural Tennessee an especially weighty decision. After speaking with her family and her priest, she concluded that Sewanee was a viable option. Her husband, David, would stay in St. Louis with their children, while she would rent a home on the Mountain. “When people asked David about our family arrangements at that time, he’d say, ‘Doris was called to be a priest, and I was called to make that happen,’” she says.

Even with her family’s tremendous support, Westfall says her move to Sewanee likely would not have occurred without generous financial aid from the University and additional assistance from a family friend. “When I was considering Sewanee, I talked to a woman who has been like a fairy godmother to me,” she says. “I told her my concerns about housing costs, and she said, ‘I would really like to see you go to Sewanee. I’ll pay your living expenses.’”

Westfall says her friend’s remarkable generosity played a role in inspiring her own family’s philanthropy. “Years ago, when David and I were sitting with our financial advisor and planning for our retirement, our advisor asked about our goals. David said, ‘I want to be able to support a seminarian like Doris was supported.’”

From her first days as a seminarian on the Mountain, Westfall says, “I knew I was where God needed me to be.” Every evening, she called home to hear about her sons’ school adventures and guide them in their evening prayers. “They realized that you don’t necessarily have to be geographically present to be emotionally present,” she says.

During the day, she immersed herself in coursework and lively theological conversations with classmates. She says she particularly enjoyed classes with now-retired C.K. Benedict Professor of New Testament Christopher Bryan, H’12. During her second year at Sewanee, Westfall and fellow seminarian Gail Wheatley, T’05, wanted to study the Gospel of Mark but realized Sewanee wasn’t offering any related courses. They approached Bryan, who arranged a class in his living room. “One time Chris told me, ‘I have to interview a prospective student, so I’m going to be a little late to class,’” Westfall says. “He said, ‘You know where the tea kettle is, and biscuits are in my cabinet. Feel free to make tea and put out biscuits.’”

After graduation, Westfall served in a variety of settings while seeking a full-time, paid position. “I worked with rural congregations, exceedingly small congregations, suburban congregations, and in campus ministry,” she says. “I took it on faith that things would work out.” In 2007, she became rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Warson Woods, Missouri—a position she held for seven years until the church merged with a nearby Episcopal parish. Westfall notes that while the merger was successful, her new role became a poor fit for personal reasons. “It was a painful experience,” she says, “but St. Paul says, ‘All things work together for good, for those who love God.’ God can use absolutely anything.”

Westfall’s faith and optimism didn’t let her down. After leaving the Diocese of Missouri and holding interim ministry positions in Western Louisiana and Ohio, she returned to Missouri and was appointed canon to the ordinary by the diocese’s former bishop, the Rt. Rev. George Smith, T’93. “If anybody had said to me at the time, ‘You’re going to be canon to the ordinary,’ I would have responded, ‘What mushrooms are you eating?’” Westfall laughs. “But Bishop Smith said, ‘You’ve got street cred. Everybody in this diocese knows and respects you, and you’ve served just about every type of church we have.’”

Westfall says no two days are the same in her current position—her many roles include providing pastoral care to the diocese’s clergy, seeking clergy to bring into the diocese, problem-solving with vestries and priests, and even tackling real estate issues. “I loved being a parish priest—and now instead of one church, I have 42,” she says. In recognition of her exceptional service to the church and her community, Westfall received the prestigious Bishop’s Medal from the Rt. Rev. Deon Johnson in 2021.

Despite her busy schedule, Westfall sets aside significant time to support Sewanee. Since 2009, she has been a member of the Board of Trustees, and recently she served on the Vice-Chancellor Search Committee. “I’m so thrilled that Rob Pearigen was chosen as vice-chancellor,” she says. “Being on the committee was an absolutely wonderful experience.”

For nearly two decades, she and David have also provided steady funding for the School of Theology. Their major gifts toward the renovation of Hamilton Hall have been instrumental in moving the project forward. Launched in the fall of 2022, Hamilton Hall’s comprehensive redesign will add new classroom space with upgraded technology, plus a large, centrally located reading room, an oratory, and a fully revamped auditorium outfitted with state-of-the-art lighting and audiovisual equipment for homiletics instruction and practice. Renovations are currently on track for completion in the summer of 2024. Most recently, construction of a new roof is well underway, interior framing has wrapped up, and sheetrock is being hung—all while interior finish selections are being made.

The Rev. Casey Perkins, T’22, who serves as the School of Theology’s director of annual giving, says updates will enable Hamilton Hall to fully inhabit its present identity as one of the Episcopal Church’s premier residential seminaries. “As some alumni will recall, Hamilton Hall started out as the home of Sewanee Military Academy. After nearly 50 years as a seminary, it had officially outgrown its initial role,” he says. “Gifts from outstanding donors like the Westfalls have been critical to the renovation’s success and will make a very real and lasting difference for future generations of Sewanee seminarians.”

Westfall says that giving back to Sewanee brings her joy. “My family didn’t grow up with much money. We’re solidly middle class,” she notes. “But what we do give, I think we give with great love and with no strings attached.” As it turns out, her father’s speculation that she might attend a college on a mountain was more than a little prophetic—and Westfall believes he’d be proud of the places her education led her. “A few days before my dad died in 2011, he said to me, and this is an exact quote: ‘You know, Doris, life is funny. There I was about to leave the Episcopal Church because of women priests. And here you are one. And I found my faith renewed because of you.’”

To learn more about supporting Hamilton Hall’s comprehensive renovations, please contact the Rev. Casey Perkins, T’22, director of annual giving, at casey.perkins@sewanee.edu or 931.598.1316.