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Rev. Jennifer Mattson, new priest-in-charge at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, who will preside at services for the first time in her new role on Sunday, January 8, 2017.

St. Thomas Episcopal Church went through a rough patch following the untimely death just before Christmas 2014 of its rector, the Rev. Jonathan Currier, who was riding his bicycle when it was struck by a car.

“He had a big, bright smile that lit up the room and a contagious laugh,” said the Rev. Jennifer Mattson, who worked with Currier on projects for the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania.

Mattson began her duties as priest-in-charge at St. Thomas on Monday. She will preach at the church for the first time in services at 8 and 10 a.m. Sunday.

“It’s humbling for me to follow in his footsteps,” she said.

Mattson credits Deacon Jane Miron and the Rev. Gina Barrett, who was on staff at St. Thomas at the time, for helping the congregation work through its grief and healing.

“They lived fully in it, and now they are ready to share the next phase of life as a congregation,” Mattson said.

Mattson served as assistant rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 321 W. Chestnut St., for 9 1/2 years before taking a break following the birth of her fourth child 17 months ago. She will serve St. Thomas part time, easing back to full time in a few years.

Elaine Austin, chair of the search committee, was impressed with Mattson’s enthusiasm, warmth, deep faith and her desire to listen and eagerness to lead.

“Her sermons are strongly based in scripture while informed by historical and cultural context,” Austin said.

Mattson was born in Washington, D.C., into a military family, and grew up living in numerous places, including Louisiana and Germany. When her father retired from the Army, the family moved to Shippensburg. She is a graduate of Shippensburg High School and Shippensburg University, where she majored in elementary education, with a double minor in early childhood education and music. She sings and plays the piano and flute.

In fact, Mattson and her husband, Bradley Mattson, a local financial advisor who also is a musician, sing in the Compline Choir at St. James Episcopal Church, Lancaster, on First Fridays. They also sing once a month in a choir at St. Martin in the Fields Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill.

Her calling

“I felt the call to be a priest at 16, “ she said. “No one took it very seriously, but it stuck.”

“Before that,” she acknowledged, “I wanted to be an FBI agent.”

Mattson majored in education because “I love children, and it’s an important resource as a priest.”

Mattson went on to the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale University, followed by a year as a chaplain resident at Yale-New Haven Hospital to learn pastoral care first hand.

“I was on call overnight one night a week,” she said.

Part of the reason Yale appealed to her was its ecumenical nature.

“I’m very passionate about developing ecumenical relationships,” she said.

At St. Thomas, which has about 250 members and about 100 worshippers attending services on a typical Sunday, Mattson plans “to dive in and learn about this congregation and get to know them — learning and listening about who they are as a people of God.”

She wants to explore the church motto: “God’s Spirit is Alive Here.”

“I just find that so intriguing,” she said. “What does it mean to be alive in worship, in prayer, in discipleship, in your faith life?”

Attracted to St. Thomas

She also loves St. Thomas’ 2016 mission statement, which reads in part: “…to be transformed by the word and spirit of God so that we may become more like Jesus.”

“That really captivated my attention and interest,” she said.

The statement includes: “…welcome all seekers, strugglers, doubters and believers into a joyful community of faith.”

“I love that notion of joy, when you think of all they’ve been through,” she said.

Mattson believes joy is different from happiness.

“It’s deeper, richer and finds its life in Christ,” she said. “I’m really excited to explore how to be a joyful community open to others.”

St. Thomas has a labyrinth open to all on its lawn, where walkers can be on the journey again and again. A wing of the church is a spiritual center, with a chapel, meditation room and library. The congregation also hosts numerous diocesan events.

“The big thing I’m excited and passionate about is making the church a welcoming space, a vibrant space for children and families,” Mattson said. “We’re all on a journey, not just a Sunday morning thing but the way you live your life in the world.”

Mattson described the congregation as aging but also interesting, curious and creative.

As an example, parishioner Jay Anderson, a retired Franklin & Marshall College computer professor, created an app called “Stop and Pray” and an app for people who are visually impaired or blind to guide them through the wood-carved Stations of the Cross that hang permanently on the walls of the sanctuary.

The congregation is also compassionate, Mattson said.

“I’ve been struck by the theological and political diversity,” she said. “It’s a place that has worship and fellowship in Christ at its center but encourages room and space to develop who you are on the journey. The church should be that one place where you are safe to be who you are and be in the process of developing in your journey.

“So much of our politics is so angry. The church should be one place where we can still come together and engage in authentic conversation without fear of judgment and angry rhetoric. It’s a mark of health and wellness if you have diversity in community and worship and fellowship.”