[Episcopal News Service] Long before the Rev. Ann Ritonia was elected an Episcopal bishop, before her ordination to the priesthood and even before her 17 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps and Reserves, she dreamed of success as a musician: Her goal as a teen and young adult was to perform someday in “The President’s Own” Marine Band.
“Most of the girls played the flute and clarinet. Not me,” Ritonia said in an interview with Episcopal News Service. “I played the euphonium,” a brass instrument resembling a small tuba.
Although Ritonia, 66, never earned a seat with that prestigious military band, she says her musical education, military service and 15 years of ordained ministry have well-prepared her for her next calling. On Sept. 30, Ritonia will be consecrated as The Episcopal Church’s bishop suffragan for armed forces and federal ministries, a role responsible for recruiting, endorsing and supporting more than 100 chaplains in the military, veterans’ hospitals and federal prisons. She will be the first woman to serve in that role – and likely also the first euphonium player.
“I think I’ve got the best job in the church,” she told ENS. “I think all of the skills that God has given and helped me develop over the years have kind of come into place like a puzzle, at this time, for this ministry.”
The bishop suffragan for armed forces and federal ministries is a member of the presiding bishop’s staff and is elected by the House of Bishops. The position has been vacant since the Rt. Rev. Carl Wright resigned in July 2022, citing health reasons. Ritonia was elected to succeed Wright at the House of Bishops’ March 2023 meeting. Her consecration will be held in Washington, D.C., at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Lafayette Square, which faces the White House.
Ritonia, who was ordained a priest in 2008, had served as rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Ellicott City, Maryland, since 2017. She previously served at parishes in the dioceses of Virginia and Washington. She has volunteered for seven years on The Episcopal Church’s Chaplain Selection Committee, which interviews applicants for chaplains in the armed forces and federal ministries.
She said her faith was nurtured at a young age, growing up in a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. Her family attended a Roman Catholic church, at a time when the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s were lowering barriers for all Christians to engage with their faith and participate in worship.
“It really shaped my view of church,” Ritonia said. “The Holy Spirit was just moving in the church, not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but the Protestant churches as well.”
After high school, her love for music led her to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she studied the euphonium and music education, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. Music also influenced her decision to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1979. After basic training, she attended the Armed Forces School of Music, though her dreams of performing in military bands gave way to a new ambition to become an officer.
Her early experience in the Marines “gave me a broader picture of what was out there in the world,” she said. “I had leadership skills that I didn’t even know were there, and the Marine Corps helped me see that and really develop those skills.” Though she wasn’t the first woman to attend leadership training for military officers, her cohort was the first integrated class, with men and women training together.
She was commissioned as a second lieutenant, and after completing administrative officer school, she received her first assignment as an adjutant, or commanding officer’s assistant, based in Norfolk, Virginia. Over the course of her seven years in active duty, her overseas assignments included 18 months in Okinawa, Japan. Her 10 years as a reservist included six months of active duty in 1990 and 1991 during the Persian Gulf War, when her unit was assigned to California but didn’t deploy overseas.
Ritonia and her husband also had a growing family, and in 1997, after their fourth child was born, she decided it was the right time to transition to civilian life, rather than risk another deployment. She ended her military career with the rank of major.
Even while serving in the military, Ritonia had found opportunities to continue performing music, and after resigning, she found work as a church musician. She also felt a pull toward ordination.
“I always knew I was called to ministry, from about the time I was 7 years old,” Ritonia said, though in the Roman Catholic Church, she had few other options than becoming a nun. She was first introduced to The Episcopal Church through her employment as a music minister at a parish in Virginia.
“The order of military life fit in really well as a liturgist,” she said, “and the call to ordained ministry came out of both of those vocations.”
She decided to attend Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., where she earned her Master of Divinity degree. She completed additional classes at Virginia Theological Seminary to become an Episcopal priest.
Now, as bishop-elect, she looks forward to working with the 119 Episcopal chaplains in the armed forces and federal ministries. She said she wants to double that number in her first few years as bishop suffragan. The value of military chaplaincies was clear to her when she was on the receiving end of their counsel as a Marine. “I was able to have a place where I could connect, and I had spiritual leaders in chaplains,” she said.
Chaplains’ work in veterans’ hospitals and federal prisons is just as important, she said – “in those places where people are really hurting, where they need to know God loves them unconditionally … that God’s mercy is always available.”
The chaplains overseen by the bishop suffragan are all Episcopal priests, though their service in the armed forces and federal ministries is ecumenical and nondenominational. They are trained to provide pastoral care to all in need, regardless of faith background. Part of Ritonia’s responsibility will be to encourage more Episcopal seminarians and priests to consider this kind of chaplaincy, at a time when fewer parishes have full-time openings for priests.
“Federal ministries is really a wonderful alternative, where you can really live into your ministry,” she said, adding that chaplains can make a real difference, especially in small military units. “Both the Army and the Navy are increasing the number of chaplains, and there aren’t a lot of Protestant, liturgical chaplains.”
– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.