By Mark Brolly
25 March 2022
The Reverend Kathryn Bellhouse is one of the newest priests in the Melbourne diocese, but her path to priesting has been lifelong.
One of 14 ordinands – seven of them women – priested last November at St Paul’s Cathedral, Ms Bellhouse is assistant curate at St Eanswythe’s Altona and St Clement’s Altona Meadows. She grew up in Queenscliff, where her grandparents were involved with St George’s Anglican church.
But her ordination was quite a surprise to her family. In response to the news, one uncle said: “You’d have to be the first religious person in our family.”
Ms Bellhouse said her early sense of priests and the church were shaped by growing up in Queenscliff.
“I’d go to church with my family twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, and I always loved it,” she said.
“I found it incredibly mysterious, this incredible other reality.”
“Queenscliff is a small town, there are only a handful of kids around. When you go to church at Christmas and Easter, there’s your grandparents and a handful of kids who have come along with their parents and you know the priest is the one who is in that building and is devoted to God, while the rest of the community rolls on.”
Ms Bellhouse’s father was a teacher, and ran a publishing business and school workshops, while her mother worked in Human Resources.
As a teenager, she attended Kardinia International College, in Geelong. There, a two-month trip to northern Thailand in Year nine proved formative, as the students stayed with a Karen community near the Burmese border.
“That had a big impact on me, the sense of the gulf between the rich and the poor, but also finding joy in a simple life and being in a place where you didn’t feel anxious about performing or proving anything,” Ms Bellhouse said.
Ms Bellhouse went on to study literature and philosophy at Melbourne University. She loved it, but always felt there was something missing. She remembered one subject called God and the natural sciences, taught by Anglican priest Stephen Ames and another academic, who was an atheist. In the class, everyone around her was saying “I’m an utilitarian,” or, “I’m an atheist,” while she was fascinated by one Christian philosopher they studied.
As the end of her degree neared, she met Bishop Philip Huggins in Queenscliff. He and the local vicar, Father Peter Martin, invited her to a conference at Trinity College on the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Church.
“I went to that and I was quite amazed at this whole world of people who belonged to the church and were devoted to God and felt very hopeful about its future,” Ms Bellhouse said.
“It was at the time when some of the findings of the Royal Commission were coming out and … people were speaking about coming to terms with that past and repentance but also seeing that the light of Christ will lead us through this.”
Ms Bellhouse then heard the Reverend Canon Professor Dorothy Lee lead a Bible study about Jesus and the woman at the well, and on the symbol of thirst and longing for God in John’s Gospel. Within months, she was studying at the theological college. As Ms Bellhouse studied at Trinity, she became involved with St Mary’s in North Melbourne.
But she believes the path to ordination had begun much earlier.
“The seeds had been planted over a long period of time by people like Bishop Philip and Peter (Martin) saying to me: ‘There are more parishes than there are priests’,” Ms Bellhouse said.
“I think for most people that would have just been in one ear and out the other, whereas it stayed with me.”
In deciding whether to pursue that path, she spoke first to her father, wondering whether she should first teach for five years. He told her that it would take five years to find her feet teaching, and she should do then what would sustain her. The move was quite a surprise to her mother, but Ms Bellhouse said she was happy to know what Ms Bellhouse’s path would be.
The Reverend Dr Craig D’Alton started the process for candidacy for ordination in his last weeks at North Melbourne, while she was also offered a placement at a Spotswood parish.
Meanwhile, Ms Bellhouse had started worshipping at Christ Church Brunswick, led by Bishop Lindsay Urwin. She was at Christ Church when ordained a deacon in February 2020.
A month later the first lockdown happened.
It meant her early days in ministry were spent working with a small team, to put together the Sunday Eucharist, which was then recorded.
Ms Bellhouse was also involved in a Thursday community meal for transient people in Brunswick.
In 2021, she arrived in Altona for her placement under the supervision of its vicar, the Reverend Chris Lancaster.
Ms Bellhouse said spending an extra year as a deacon was very much the right call for herself.
“For all the richness of that first year, I wasn’t ready to be priested after 10 months,” she said.
With activities such as midweek services, playgroups and visits to nursing homes, Ms Bellhouse said there was a steady rhythm to her week.
The Sunday before The Melbourne Anglican spoke to Ms Bellhouse, she had presided and preached at St Eanswythe’s service while her vicar played the organ because the parish organist was away.
She remembered trembling at her first Eucharist, because she was aware “there’s no one behind me.” This Sunday, Ms Bellhouse said she had a sense of “frailty more than unworthiness”, of having arrived at where she was meant to be.
“I had a strong sense of joy and also how small I am and not so much how big God is but how holy,” she said.
This profile of the Reverend Kathryn Bellhouse is part of a series on women in ministry, marking the December 2022 anniversary of 30 years since women were ordained in the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne.