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A former Penn professor has made her mark on religious history.

Reverend Leslie Callahan was recently chosen as the new pastor for St. Paul’s Baptist Church — located at 1000 Wallace Street in Philadelphia — making her the first female pastor in the church’s 119 years of history.

“This appointment represents the accomplishment of a goal I’ve had for many years, with new challenges and new opportunities,” Callahan said.

A job in the clergy has been a long time coming for Callahan, who has been preaching since she was 19 and says she has been active in the church her entire life.

She earned her doctorate in religion from Princeton University in 2002 before becoming a professor of Religious Studies at Penn from 2002 to 2008.

Although she will miss interacting with the brilliant minds and thoughtful students at Penn, Callahan said she wanted to pursue life in the church as her primary vocation.

The new pastor added that she credits her time at the University for making Philadelphia her “home.”

“I think every experience contributes to the next, and I have Penn to thank for being here,” Callahan said.

She explained that she considers her election as the first female pastor of the historic church a step towards breaking the glass ceiling, one which women in many professions still haven’t taken.

“Though I am still celebrating, I am also trying to be thoughtful about what I do next,” she said.

Reverend Charles Howard, the university chaplain, cited the complex history of women in the black church as the largest hurdle Callahan had to overcome to receive the job.

“[The position] should be a no-brainer, as Reverend Callahan is one of the most qualified theological minds, but her election still represents a profound statement for the black church and for the Christian church overall,” Howard said.

William Gipson, the associate vice provost for equity and access who has known Callahan since she was a graduate student, wrote in an e-mail that Callahan’s selection demonstrated a “maturation on the part of congregations like St. Paul’s” as they realized the unique skills that ordained female leadership can provide to churches.

Other members of the Penn community who are familiar with Callahan’s work and achievements said they think she will excel in her new job.

“She stood out because of her heart for the church and for ministry,” said Religious Studies professor emeritus Stephen Dunning, who was involved in hiring Callahan as a Penn professor in 2002. “I think she will do a wonderful job in her new role.”

Gipson agreed, writing that Callahan “makes biblical text come alive” for a congregation.

Callahan explained that as the new pastor, she has many goals, some of which extend beyond the pulpit into the community.

“My first priority is to really revive and invigorate the worship,” Callahan said. “Then I want to address the question of what people need now. In the midst of economic crisis and transition, what would most bless people in the immediate community?”

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