First Female Lutheran Pastor To Promote Homosexual Marriage Dies At 61.

Susan Wolfe-Devol, Orange County’s first female Lutheran pastor and a strong voice for social justice and inclusion in the church, died Dec. 16 of intestinal cancer. She was 61.

Wolfe-Devol was a “trailblazer” and brilliant theologian, but struggled to be accepted in ministry at a time when almost all members of clergy were men, said her sister Connie Wolfe of Huntington Beach.

“She graduated at the top of her class, but was one of the last to find a call,” said Wolfe, who teaches sign language at Edison High School.

But, family members say, Wolfe-Devol’s early experiences shaped the life she would lead as a fearless pastor who advocated for women, the LGBT community, immigrants and others who were marginalized.

Born on May 30, 1955 in Los Angeles in a faith-filled home, she grew up in Ventura, graduating from Ventura High School in 1973. She earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from UC Berkeley and a master of divinity degree at Wartburg Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.

Wolfe-Devol served her internship at an all-black congregation in Detroit. It was an experience, her sister says, that helped shape her ministry and her sense of social justice.

She became an ordained minister in the American Lutheran Church at Trinity, her home congregation, in 1984. In 1985, she became the first female Lutheran pastor to serve in Orange County – at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Santa Ana.

“It was a profound experience for her because Orange County was quite conservative,” Connie Wolfe said. “But as people got to know her, she was well accepted.”

Having served in Orange County until 1990, Wolfe-Devol later became associate pastor at Angelica Lutheran Church in the Pico-Union District where until 2000, she served a diverse community – from older Swedish congregants to newer Latino immigrants.

From 2000 to 2013, she was pastor at St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in North Hollywood gaining the distinction as that church’s longest-serving pastor. She helped the congregation grow an inclusive ministry that forcefully advocated for church policies.

Wolfe-Devol’s bold advocacy for the LGBT community helped pave the way to the landmark 2009 vote by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to allow gay and lesbian clergy to openly marry and continue to serve.

She married a number of gay and lesbian couples including Richard Gasparotti, former congregational president at St. Matthew’s, and his partner Morgan Rumpf. The couple were married during the three-month window in 2008 when gay marriage was legal, which changed when voters approved Proposition 8.

“Sue helped us with our vows,” Gasparotti said. “When the law changed, we were worried about what our status would be. Sue simply said, ‘You are married in the eyes of God’ and that we shouldn’t be concerned.”

Wolfe-Devol was a dynamic pastor who served as a bridge between communities, he said.

“She led missions to build homes for women and children who got stranded on the side of the border in Otay Mesa,” Gasparotti said. “She was passionate about feeding the hungry. She was a connector of people. She touched the lives, hearts and minds of so many people who will go forward with work that she started with them.”

Gasparotti also praised Wolfe-Devol’s preaching style, how she seamlessly wove in the secular and religious.

“She had a gift for the Gospel,” he said. “She understood its poetry and soul, and interpreted it for people in a modern age.”

Wolfe-Devol helped bring a lot of people who were previously alienated because of their sexual orientation, back to the church, said Steve Devol, her husband of 29 years and an editor at the Los Angeles Times.

“She had a refreshingly blunt preaching style that worked well,” he said. “Her sermons were meticulously thought out. She was always rewriting them Sunday mornings.”

She engaged her audience, challenging people’s beliefs and inspiring those who had found the church to be an unwelcoming place when they were young, he said.

Even if she struggled to make it in a male-dominated world, Wolfe-Devol moved forward with strength, focus and grace, Gasparotti said.

“She kept her work ethic and her sense of humor,” he said. “She didn’t let those things that happened to her, affect her.”

Wolfe-Devol is survived by her husband, son Pierce, her mother, brother and sister.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7909 or dbharath@ocregister.com