SPRING HILL — The Rev. Anne Stewart, who in 2002 distinguished herself by becoming the first female to be ordained to the diaconate and priesthood in the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America, succumbed to chronic lung disease March 7 at age 62.
Those who know her say she will be missed.
"Everybody in the parish loved her," said Roz Thomas, a parishioner at St. Paul the Apostle Church, where Stewart was an associate pastor. "What a nice lady."
Stewart, along with Bishop William Fite, traveled from Orlando to visit St. Paul several times each year. The visits were something Thomas looked forward to.
"We were so glad when Mother Anne would come," Thomas said. "She was such a good speaker. You paid attention when she spoke."
Thomas also enjoyed talking with Stewart on a personal level.
"She was such an amazing person that I used to love to just sit and listen to her talk," she said. "She'd chat like we were old friends. Everything was from her heart, and that's what I liked about her."
The Rev. James Marsh, pastor at St. Paul, will officiate along with Bishop Fite and Deacon Richard Sensky at a memorial service for Stewart this evening. The hourlong service will begin at 5 in the fellowship hall of Spring Hill United Church of Christ.
Marsh, who became a priest in his early 50s, refers to Stewart as his mentor.
"I made some decisions late in life," he said, "and Anne helped me immensely with that. It was a scary time. I wasn't confident that I was doing the right thing, and she was one of the ones that helped me see that I was able to do it."
Helping to pastor at St. Paul the Apostle was only one of many ministries for Stewart. She was the former pastor of the Mission of St. Mary Magdalen in Orlando and an archivist for the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America.
She was a psychiatric nurse practitioner and medical ethicist whose professional career included clinical practice, university teaching, nursing and health care consultation. Most recently, she practiced psychotherapy at the Orange County Health Department.
Thomas said Stewart had a particular love for children, perhaps because she was a mother and grandmother herself.
"She thought of others before herself, especially when it comes to children," Thomas said. "I make afghans, and I asked her once if she could use some. She said she could, so I gave her a dozen, which she gave to children whose mothers had AIDS. 'If you could have seen the looks on the children's faces, it would have touched your heart,' she told me. 'It was like they never had anything of their own before.' It gave me shivers when she was telling me about it."
Marsh remembers Stewart's "relentless compassion" for the homeless and drug addicts.
"She did all those things. It was a blessing in my life to have known her and met her and been taught by her," he said.
He also remembers Stewart's humor.
"We wear a black shirt and white collar," Marsh said, chuckling as he recalled one of his favorite memories. "One day before a service, I had a smudge on my collar, and she ripped it off and ran to the nearest sink to wash it because it had to be white."
Thomas has put together a collage of photos of Stewart for the memorial service.
Marsh said he wants the service to be a time of remembrance.
"I don't want solitude, but I want a quiet time to reflect," he said. "I want the people who knew her to have a chance to speak to what they saw and who she was. Anne was quite a remarkable woman."
Said Thomas: "We miss her something terrible."