This interview with Allison Fresher, Verger of St. John’s Episcopal Church and member, was conducted and condensed by Chelsea DiDonato.
Allison Fresher has been a dedicated parishioner of St. John’s for almost ten years. She currently serves as an Altar Guild member, chalice bearer, Silent Auction Co-Chair for the Rummage Sale, and committee member of the Endowment and Hayden Trust Fund. She also enjoys her time as a member of our Contemplative Prayer Group and is the lead coordinator for the Maundy Thursday Vigil during Holy Week.
Q. What’s something that’s given you joy today?
A. The first glimpse of snow and enjoying the warmth and coziness of being inside. I am grateful that I no longer need to drive into work because I would have looked upon this weather entirely differently. So, two points of gratitude!
Q. What is a Verger?
A. For me, being a verger is multi-faceted. As we know from watching Rich (Richard Lammlin, St. John’s Verger), the first aspect of being a verger is assisting with the organizing and planning of our worship services. For example, we assign lay worship ministers to participate in each service. To be effective in this role, a verger must know our liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer, and our Liturgical Calendar. On Sundays, we assist with the transition between services to help free-up space for our clergy to be with the congregation and newcomers. A verger must also have knowledge of our own traditions, helping to ensure those traditions stay alive.
Q. How long does it take to become a Verger, and is it usually a year?
A. It can vary. It’s a matter of how much time one can devote to the training material. Most people finish the training in 1 – 2 years, but it can take up to 5 years. In training, you are assigned a clergy mentor, and for me, that was Reverend Linda.
Q. Is it usually the clergy in your acting congregation to mentor you during the program?
A. Yes – you must be recommended by your clergy. Once you complete the training, the clergyperson certifies that you have completed the training material, which is then reviewed for acceptance by the Vergers Guild.
Q. What interested you in becoming a Verger?
A. My love for St. John’s. There is a sacred kind of magic that exists here. It’s both in the building and its people. My first ministry at St. John’s was to join the Altar Guild; while working in the Sacristy, I learned about how we set the altar, the routines to prepare for Communion, and other practices. There’s a certain reverence associated with serving as an Altar Guild member, and being in the Sacristy allowed me to have visibility “behind the scenes”. I was able to get to know Rich and his role as Verger even better.
Q. What did you like most about your study and preparation?
A. The training has many modules, and I enjoyed aspects of each module. The training began with getting to know our building, which allowed me to meet with Building and Grounds member Ken Ewell. He walked me throughout the building, helping me to understand the architecture and history of St. John’s, as well as, for example, the location of our safety equipment. A large part of the verger’s responsibility is to respond to emergencies, so I need to know a little bit about “how the church works”, from lights and audio system, to fire alarms, even including the location of electrical panels, the furnace, and WiFi system. In the training program, you also write about yourself and the parish, study the Book of Common Prayer, and gain some knowledge about how the Episcopal Church is governed and its laws enacted.
The final module was to write a service to plan from start to finish, and I decided to write the service plan and rubrics for the Great Vigil of Easter, which has many components. Putting this plan together was the most challenging aspect of my training, but also, the most beneficial. Thankfully, I had Rev. Linda’s guidance throughout.
Q. A Verger wears a unique vestment. Can you tell me about the vestment?
A. A Verger wears a chimere, which is the long vest that goes over the cassock, and on which you can sew different patches. I have the Episcopal Church and the Vergers Guild patches sewn on mine. Also, the Rector for each church determines the appropriate vestment which a Verger may wear, and some may choose more formal vestments than we wear; these more formal vestments may be more suitable to a high church or cathedral setting.
Q. A Verger also carries a “stick;” what is that stick called, and why is it so special?
A. The stick is called a virge, and its design and purpose date back to the 1500s. Back then, the purpose of the virge was to clear animals and villagers from the clergy’s path. Today, thank goodness, it is purely ceremonial!
Q. You know, there’s a picture that I have from Palm Sunday before COVID, and you were carrying something, and I just love that picture because everyone is behind you, as you lead the congregation down to the riverside. Was that the virge in your hand, and were you in the process of training then?
A. Yes – that was the virge, but it was not the official Vergers Guild virge. If you are not part of the Guild, you carry a different virge than would the Fellows. The Fellow’s virge has the Vergers Guild symbol at the very tip, and the other has a cross at the end. We have both at St. John’s!
At the time of that picture, I didn’t know very much about the Guild. Rich had asked me a few times if I would be interested in helping with the procession during holiday services, and I was so honored and thrilled to participate in that way.
Q. I’m not sure if Rich told you this story, but he probably did. When Marlene Going was the administrator, she suggested that Rich begin the training because he was frequently in the office due to his responsibility of putting together the lay ministry schedule.
A. Don’t you think that’s how the Holy Spirit works? Sometimes, the Holy Spirit speaks through others, making a recommendation for you that you didn’t even think of for yourself. That’s what happened to me! I knew very little about being a Fellow of the Vergers Guild, and it was through the encouragement of others that I learned more. In fact, Dan Taylor-Stypa and David Evangelisti were some of the first parishioners to give me encouragement and to tell me about the more formal process. I doubt they even remember the moment that they made the suggestion, but I sure do!
Q. I understand not all churches have verger’s in their congregation. Do you know when St. John’s had their first one?
A. I do not, but I assume that Rich is the first. His tenth anniversary is coming up soon – in January! (Fact Checked: Richard Lammlin is the first at St. John’s).
Q. I recently read on the Vergers Guild that there are currently over 1,000 members. How does it feel to be a part of such a unique ministry?
A. It makes me feel proud, of course, and I am very impressed with the quality of fellowship, instruction, and support available from the Vergers Guild. We just had our virtual annual meeting in September, and it was a wonderful way to receive fellowship and support from others. For example, we were able to share information about how each of our churches were dealing with the pandemic and to share best practices for reopening.
Q. Sunday, you’ll be installed. Is there anything in particular that you’re looking forward to the service? (She was installed the first Sunday of November 2020).
A. Everything, but I’m very much looking forward to the moment when Brian (husband and current Warden of St. John’s) vests me with the chimere. That will be a very special moment for me; he has been so supportive!
Q. Is there anything else that we missed that you want to add? Also, thank you so much for doing this with me today!
A. To me, being a Verger means helping to make our worship services as meaningful and welcoming as possible for parishioners and newcomers. The inspiration for me was seeing Rich in action. He was always so welcoming to me and to all laypeople. For a long while, I was intimidated by the prospect of serving at the altar. I never imagined myself being worthy. Also, I was afraid of making mistakes. We all make them. He gave me the confidence to participate in this ministry. I hope to impart to others the same confidence, because participating as a lay worship minister is a deeply moving experience. I’m so looking forward to serving our parish in this new role and hope to pass along to others the joy in this ministry that I have received.