REV. ERNESTEIN C. FLEMISTER
Master of Business Administration, 1990
Rector, St. James House of Prayer Episcopal Church
Liberian Escape | In June 1980, the Liberian government was overthrown in a military coup. When the revolutionaries killed the president and shot his cabinet members on a beach, Flemister, a native of Liberia who worked as an attorney in Monrovia, realized she had to get her family out of the country. She, her son and her sister’s three children packed suitcases and fled, catching one of the last flights out to New York, where her father was the Liberian consul general.
Surviving | Flemister moved to Columbus, Ohio, to live with her sister, first on a visitor’s visa and then on a student visa. She was not allowed to work until 1990, when the Liberian civil war broke out and she gained protected status in the U.S. By then, she’d gone back to school to earn an undergraduate degree in finance and then to Xavier for an MBA, attending satellite classes held at Ohio Dominican University.
Turning Point | Flemister found work in customer service and insurance but was unhappy in her new field. She was raised an Episcopalian, and her grandfather was a priest, so she attended a Columbus-area Episcopalian church. When members of her church told her she ought to become a priest, she resisted.
The Calling | “They said, ‘We think you have a calling for this.’ At first I didn’t take them seriously,” she said. “It’s such a high calling, I didn’t think I was worthy. But I liked the idea of helping people and doing things in a way that I think will transform people. I talked to a priest who was a dear friend and became a mentor for me, and that’s when I started thinking this is something I really wanted to do.”
Back To School | Flemister entered the seminary in 2004 and finished in 2007. She was assigned to Grace Episcopal Church in Cincinnati for two years, but they could not hire her full time. She interviewed elsewhere for full-time positions and was the finalist for the rector’s job at St. James House of Prayer in Tampa, Fla., where she started in September. The old church is on the National Register and has about 150 members today.
Many Firsts | “I’m the first African-American female in the diocese of Southwest Florida as a rector,” she says. “For me it’s not a big deal, but I think it serves as an example for other young women to know they can accomplish anything.”
The Rift | She’s distressed by the rift occurring in the Episcopal Church worldwide among traditional, conservative Episcopalians who are breaking away from the mainstream church. “I think it’s unfortunate because, as Christians, we’re called to be reconciled no matter how big the differences are and to keep talking to each other,” she says. “I’m saddened they’ve chosen to leave the table as opposed to staying and sticking it out.”