Gunnison Memorial Chapel Ceiling Beams

A Spirited Bunch

The Rev. Janet Legro '85

Innovation is not the first word that comes to mind when discussing the professional side of faith-based careers that have come after a St. Lawrence experience, but it happens to be a good way to describe the work of many Laurentians who have taken leadership roles on the inside and outside of various sacred spaces. 

From the rabbi advocating social justice for her community in St. Louis, Missouri, and the pastor who invited intellectual and spiritual scrutiny through sermon discussions and television programming, to a comparative religions scholar applying lessons learned across continents, or even a Chicago transplant establishing gospel music as a staple in the North Country, St. Lawrence boasts a creative and spirited bunch.

“I think whether we’re talking about the ministry of religious institutions like churches or synagogues or mosques, whether it’s clergy-type roles, nonprofit roles, or service roles,” says the Rev. Janet Hatfield Legro ’85, “I feel like it is a time of pure innovation.”

Janet Legro '85 with a youth group trip to New York City

Janet Legro '85 (back row, center) with a youth group in New York City.

How exactly does one go from a liberal arts undergraduate degree in government to a 35-year career in ministry working in nearly every time zone across the U.S. as well as a few overseas? 

“I never wanted to be a minister,” says Legro, who was ordained through the United Church of Christ in 1989. 

“I would say it started with my sophomore year taking a class from religious studies professor Tom Coburn called Mystical Experience East and West. It was just one of those classes where the light goes on, and you love the questions and the conversation, and everything I was reading was stimulating.”

Although she didn’t know it at the time, Legro says her path was being laid before her. She became involved with ringing the Bacheller Memorial Chime and was invited to preach for parents’ weekend during her senior year, her first experience at the pulpit. She then went on to pursue a comparative religion degree from Harvard, where she studied the Arabic language and Islam to complement her interest in the overlap of government and religion. 

“I laugh at this now,” says Legro, “but my dream at the time was to be a consultant to the U.S. government on religion. I wanted to train diplomats to understand Islam and work in a way that really respected the tradition and didn’t offend, but understood, the culture and the values.”

In a way, Legro has spent a lifetime in an expanded version of doing that and more, just not exactly in the way she envisioned. Again, it was Tom Coburn, former Dana Professor of Religious Studies, who remained a mentor beyond Legro’s graduation from St. Lawrence and who nudged her on course. “As I was struggling with deciding about a Ph.D., he encouraged me to consider ministry in a way I never had before, and he was right. I loved everything about it from the start.”

Even when Legro switch to the divinity program at Harvard, she was unconvinced about formalizing a career in ministry. “Even then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll never be ordained,’” says Legro, but each brick of that path was being laid with each interaction and opportunity. Legro worked at Harvard’s Memorial Chapel and recalls how meaningful the parade of humanity was to her there. 

“We had prayer every morning for 15 minutes,” she says, “and a different member of the Harvard community would speak for five minutes from the heart: it could have been a custodian or it could have been an astrophysicist, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, an undergraduate, or a retired professor. Each of them was really moving.”

In 1987, former St. Lawrence University Chaplain Ted Lin invited Legro to serve as interim chaplain during his scheduled sabbatical. She accepted, and the dominos began falling from that point on. Ordained in 1989, Legro began as an associate minister in Santa Barbara, California, steadily moving east, gaining experiences in Minneapolis, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as living abroad in India and China before recently relocating to Richmond, Virginia. In addition to her leadership as pastor for several churches, Legro has worked with youth groups to support mental health and trauma recovery, taught comparative religion courses, and served on the boards of community groups and as a trustee for St. Lawrence University as well as consulted with churches on strategies for transitions in leadership.

It is in her consulting role that Legro capitalizes on her knowledge of different religious traditions to assist with framing the future for a young church. And it is from 10 years working with a Quaker community that she adopted the use of “clearness committees,” small groups who practice very intentional listening, and open-ended questions to discern the consensus of the community and build strategies from there.

It all boils down to enhancing the quality of community, according to Legro. It is why she believes she thrived at St. Lawrence as a student and came back to support the institution as a trustee. It is what she has spent a career supporting through ministry and service, and it is informed by her ongoing scholarship of religious traditions.

“That’s why I love studying world religions,” she says. “I feel like this is an area that is perfect for creative thinking and innovation. I think that might be one of the things that I love about the whole listening process. People are eager to reimagine. And, so, I just feel like there’s so much energy toward building community. I feel like that’s where the hope is.”

Previous: School Spirit

Next: The Olympia Brown Factor: the Rabbi Susan Talve '74

Part III: Jack of All Trades, the Rev. David Weissbard '62

Part IV: Got Spirit? the Rev. Shaun Whitehead



Top image: Gunnison Memorial Chapel was constructed in 1926 in the Gothic revival style. The decorative interior cathedral ceiling was built using the knees and timber of old ships from Maine and painted by artisans from Montreal.