Earlier this year Helen McFadyen became the first minister ordained by the Unitarian Universalist Church in Halifax in its 177 year old history.

And that's not even what makes her story extraordinary.

McFadyen was born and raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and says she always felt a call to the spiritual life, but she realized early on that her calling wouldn't be answered in the Catholic Church. 

"I was the kid who refused to kiss the Bishop's ring at my confirmation," she says. "I thought it was horrific and not just an issue about germs, that everybody was kissing this ring, but it was a debasing thing to do, to kiss a man's ring. So at seven, I think a heretic was born."

That was in the 1960s, in Saint Lambert on Montreal's South Shore.

McFadyen also realized she was gay at an early age, another factor in her decision to leave the Church.

But, she says, the feeling that she was "called" never faded. She spent years working as a ship's cook, reading spiritual texts, trying to find a home for her vocation. She moved to Halifax and tried a Baptist congregation, but it wasn't the right fit either.

"And it was even more disappointing to decide to leave, still feeling called to the ministry but ...not knowing there was any place to direct my call."

Remembers Lotta Hitschmanova

Unitarian Universalist Minister

Helen McFadyen was born and raised in the Roman Catholic faith, and says she realized early on that her calling wouldn't be answered in the Catholic Church. (Molly Segal/CBC)

‚Äč

Eventually she stumbled across the Unitarian Service of Canada, remembering the ads that used to appear on Canadian television featuring humanitarian Lotta Hitschmanova.

About eight years ago she joined the congregation at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Halifax, where she, within days, she says she knew "that this was the place I belonged both as my faith home, [and] a place where I could nurture my call."

But her journey wasn't over.

She enrolled at the Atlantic School of Theology, where academic dean Jody Clarke said she needed a little bit of coaching to "take the edges off."

He says she could be "quite edgy with me and with her colleagues and that's antithetical to the pastoral practice."

It was during her time studying to be a minister that McFadyen also came out to her friends and colleagues - as an atheist.

Meanwhile, McFadyen had begun to lose her eyesight in her forties. She's now considered legally blind, and has a guide dog named Camilla. (McFadyen sings "grace" to her dog as a signal that it's time to eat.)

The deterioration of her eyesight was a frightening experience for McFadyen, and a loss she had to grieve, But she says she was determined not to let it hold her back.

Church gave support

"That was kind of a profound point in my life where I had to come to terms with, 'well what am I going to do now, do I curl up and pack it in? Because things are going to get very hard now, just practically hard. And there's a process of dealing with that sense of loss ... a sense is a loss you would grieve in the same way as the loss of a friend. And I began trying to make sense of my life even more, so more introspection and reaching out to people."

She credits her Church community with reaching out to her and supporting her through all her challenges, including the decision to become a minister.

Although, she says, "the ordination was the icing on the cake, I knew I was a minister before that."

Hear much more about Helen McFadyen's journey - including a childhood friend who remembers the Bishop's Ring Incident - on Atlantic Voice. (Sunday morning at 8:30)