Erlene Kirkland, housekeeper at The Falls Church Anglican since 1997, finished her last shift yesterday and begins retirement today. The 81-year-old’s retirement is yet another milestone in a series of bittersweet, large-scale changes for our church family, especially for our staff members who have come to lean on Erlene as their “sister, mother, grandmother and friend.”
“Sometimes I think Erlene knows more people in this church than I do,” said John Yates at a retirement luncheon given in Erlene’s honor in Cranmer Chapel last Tuesday. And yes, it’s no coincidence that the two longtime friends and co-workers are retiring together. Facilities Manager Daron Keller explained, “Erlene always said she would go out with John, and I guess that’s the plan.” Besides Executive Assistant to the Rector Nancy McAlpin, Erlene has been the only one on staff who can enter John Yates’ office anytime, according to Daron. “What privilege,” he chuckled.
Born three blocks from Route 50 off Annandale Road, Erlene’s earliest memories of our parish reach far beyond 1997 back to age 8, around the time when her father, Harold Mansfield, was hired as the Falls Church (Episcopal) sexton in 1942. She recalls being a daddy’s girl and watching her father “fix the fires” and keep the big old potbelly furnace going in the original building. Concerned that his daughter was too quiet, her father told her, “You’ve got to learn how to speak up.” She announced at her retirement luncheon, “I guess I did learn.”
When her father left to serve in the Army, the church hired her mother, Ernestine, and the mother-daughter pair used to set up for coffee hour, make the lemonade, wash the choir robes, polish the silver and clean up after potluck dinners. After Erlene’s father returned from the service, Erlene’s mother continued working at the church, retiring in ’85. She was “one who went around the place getting more done than anyone else,” according to John.
“When John first came, my mom used to call him ‘that little boy;’ she just couldn’t believe that he was old enough to know anything,” Erlene recalls. Even 30 years into John’s career as rector, long after Ernestine retired, she still asked her daughter, “Is that little boy still there?’” Erlene laughs at how she had to insist to her mother, “He’s a grown man with five children and a lovely wife.”
Meanwhile, Erlene had grown up riding the bus into DC with three or four other students who were “homesteaders” in their Falls Church neighborhood. “There was no integration until ’53, my first year of high school,” she says, so she attended Georgetown Junior High School and Dunbar High School, a 45-minute ride, “depending on the weather and how fast the man wanted to drive that morning.”
When she was about 17, Erlene met 21-year-old Elijah Kirkland who loved jazz and taught her how to drive his ’49 Ford. The couple married two years later, and Erlene found a job working for the State Department the following year. Her co-workers’ kindness stood out to her when she and Elijah were expecting a baby, “[My co-workers] were feeding me the whole time, every time I got pregnant, they fed me.”
Erlene’s accomplishments after working a stressful seven years with the State Department include 20 years as a physical therapist’s assistant at the National Orthopedic Hospital frequented by the golfer, Arnold Palmer, and a successful business in interior decorating and selling antiques. (“Junk is my favorite piece of life,” she says.)
Enjoying the challenge of going back to school to earn a certificate in physical therapy, she was glad to be more active as she engaged with motor skill specialists and patients who came from around the country. Ironically, Erlene suffered two severe injuries during her years working at the hospital – one from a tractor-trailer who ran her off the road – and had to be operated on by her own co-workers. “It took everything they had to get my hands off the steering wheel since my hands froze,” she said. “They thought they’d have to bring the steering wheel to the hospital with me.”
Miraculously, she recovered and never lost her stride. Sometime after a neck operation in which Erlene says the doctor teased that he would take her head “all the way off and put it on again,” she decided she was ready for a change of scenery away from the hospital. So, she began taking college classes in interior design. “I knew I had a good eye,” she laughed. “But mostly I tried to figure out, did I take math in school? All that measuring and subtracting!”
“I think the highlight of my career was really here,” Erlene said, looking back on how she got her start at The Falls Church (Episcopal). It was her husband, Elijah, who eventually brought her full circle when he resigned from his job at an animal control clinic and began working full-time for the church alongside Erlene’s mother in ’84. “He and my mom and John, they were a pair! My mother always tried to help him with his sermon, but I said, ‘I don’t think he needs any help.”
In so many ways, Erlene’s life has revolved around this parish. “I’ve met so many interesting people here,” Erlene says, recalling how her two children and her sister, along with her parents and her husband Elijah, also worked at the Falls Church Anglican through the years. “Each parishioner I’ve met has been a good experience – never any unkind words, just a family. As my husband would say, he loved the Falls Church because it was a home away from home.”
When Elijah died after a short battle with cancer in ’96, parishioners came to Erlene’s side. “Everybody helped me at church, comforted me,” she said. “A lot of times I felt like talking, and I always had someone to talk with. John is heaven, God’s gift. ‘Whatever you need,’ he said, ‘I’ll be here.’ He’s been a rock for our family and Susan’s a peach.”
Following Elijah’s death, Erlene began working at the church again, and she’s been here ever since. But neither Erlene nor John can ever forget Elijah whom they call “Lij.”
“John and Lij, they just took to each other and met at the right time and right place,” says Erlene, smiling at how John loved the smell of her husband’s pipe – cherry blend tobacco. “Lij got to running back and forth to church all the time, and I used to ask him, ‘Are you the minister over there or the pope?’”
Not unlike her husband, Erlene will always hold a prominent place at The Falls Church Anglican. John Yates is not the only clergy member over whom Erlene holds sway. “I feel like I’m losing a mom,” said Will Shafferman at Erlene’s retirement party, explaining how he has known Erlene since he was five years old and her influence on him has grown through the years.
Nicholas Lubelfeld also thanked Erlene for adopting him as a brother, and Rick Wright called her “a Barnabas,” an encourager. “People can tell she’s a good one – steady,” said Rick. “You know she’s going to be there and it’s going to be the same good Erlene.”
As Bishop Guernsey prepares to name Sam Ferguson as our new rector this Sunday, this will be the third “changing of the guard” for Erlene who has known and worked with four rectors in her lifetime. She is thrilled about this transition. “I just had this feeling and prayed that he would be rector – It was love at first sight. He and I used to have long talks when it was up in the air about his ministry.”
Erlene’s daughter Sharon, who attended the retirement party along with her daughter Jade on Tuesday, said, “I would like to thank you all for taking care of my mom … It’s the end of an era, but it’s just the beginning!”
For those of us who walk past the Facilities office after 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, we will miss the laid-back laughter of a woman known for her orderliness, homemade banana pudding and the sound of her voice as she empties the dishwasher and hands us the mugs, saying, “Hey love, can you reach the top shelf for me?”
Written by a member of our church staff