Former WSU campus ministry director elected first woman Episcopal bishop of Kansas

The Rev. Cathleen Chittenden Bascom was the first woman elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.


The Rev. Cathleen Chittenden Bascom was the first woman elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.

Rev. Cathleen Bascom has broken ground as a woman in the Episcopal church many times over the last three decades. She was the first woman to go through the entire lengthy and taxing process of ordination to the priesthood in Kansas in the 1980’s. Now Bascom will be consecrated as the first ever woman bishop of the Diocese of Kansas.

Bascom, from the Episcopal Diocese of Iowa, was in charge of campus ministries at Wichita State and Kansas State from 1993-2001. She was elected Friday as the tenth bishop to lead the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas — making her the first woman to fill the role since the formation of the diocese in 1859.  

Women have been allowed ordination to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church since 1976, but the first woman was not elected as bishop until 1988. When Bascom was ordained in the Diocese of Kansas, women’s ordination was relatively new and those early days could be lonely and difficult for female clergy.

Bascom’s election also marks the first time in history that a diocesan bishop was elected from a group of all women candidates.

“I’m very moved to have received the vote of confidence,” Bascom said in a phone interview from her Iowa office.

Originally from Denver, Bascom has family connections in Kansas and spent years here as a student and young priest in charge of campus ministries. WSU did not really have a campus ministry program at the time. Bascom and WSU alumnus, The Rev. Gar Demo, worked to change that in the early 1990’s.

“There had been a ministry there but it had been a long time. I want to say it had been maybe eight or ten years when there hadn’t been one there,” Bascom said. “So at K-State and WSU, we were planting a new ministry.

Demo of Overland Park worked with Bascom while he was an undergraduate at WSUfrom 1989 to 1994.  

“At the time, campus ministry was very small,” Demo said. “[Bascom] was my supervisor. I was the peer minister and she was the priest that was assigned. It was the first attempt to restart campus ministry. She would come down about once a month to be with us.”

Demo said those early days were tough. He spent a lot of time reaching out to local churches, looking for a viable space for the new student group to meet.

“It was kind of hard,” Demo said.

“I was like, ‘can I have my group meet there?’ and they would say ‘well, we don’t really have any room,’ so we were kind of out on our own. Cathy (Bascom) was instrumental in just giving us support and kind of getting something going.”

After Bascom stopped overseeing it, WSU’s Episcopal program once again went on hiatus.

“After she left, it kind of died away and then they re-started it under Deacon John Roper,” Demo said. “And they’ve got a pretty active group down there now.”

Bascom said campus ministries are vibrant in Kansas.

“Kansas has a very strong and supported interest in young adults and the faith of colleges,” Bascom said. “That intellectual engagement is very important in the Diocese of Kansas and that’s one thing that draws me to it.”

“There’s more happening on campuses that’s similar to what was happening at Wichita State when I was there. We have more peer ministers on more campuses and more connections with local parishes.”

Many of Bascom’s religious roots were planted in Kansas. In addition to her young days at Grace Cathedral, she had a faith experience that was nurtured at KU’s Canterbury House where she lived as a student. She said this was instrumental in helping her explore a call to ordination.“I went through the process in Kansas for the priesthood as a really young person,” Bascom said. “There was a woman priest who had come into Kansas, but I was the first woman to go through the whole process of ordination here in about 1984 when I graduated.

After seminary, Bascom returned to Kansas to help “replant campus ministry.”

She said she’s looking forward to being back in Kansas and wants to spend plenty of time in the field working with different parishes and programs across the state. Though she’ll have an office in Topeka, don’t expect to find her behind a desk for long.

“A big part of my platform and what I really believe in is that I plan to spend at least two or three weeks at every convocation in the four different sections of the diocese if possible every year, to be on the ground with people,” Bascom said. “It will take some shuffling of the way business as usual is.

“I feel a pretty strong call too that we’re in Topeka because the state government is there. I think we need to pray for what’s going on in our state and be a presence and a witness at times.”

Bascom also said the environment, especially prairieland preservation, is important to her. She hopes to work with locals on programs that help prevent environmental destruction and preserve the grasslands.

Demo said Bascom’s return to Kansas will be good for campus ministry. He said she will “bring more energy to what we’re already doing.”

Demo was present at the bishop’s election Friday, which took place at Grace Cathedral in Topeka.

“I think there was surprise and excitement at how quickly it came together,” Demo said. “It was pretty clear on the first ballot that she was in the lead.”

Bascom will soon begin wrapping up her work in Iowa as an assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa, so she can prepare for her ordination and consecration ceremony in Topeka on March 2, 2019. The service will take place at Grace Cathedral, Topeka.