March 10, 2010

Layoff proves a blessing for former city official

— The temperature outside was well on its way into the 80s the other day as Jeff Monroe prepared to leave his home in Cape Elizabeth. His daughter took one look at him and said, ''Dad all black?''

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Photo by John Ewing/Staff Photographer...... Wednesday, August 5, 2009....Jeff Monroe, a fixture in Portland city government before his layoff last year, will be ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church on Saturday, August 8th.

Replied Monroe, ''It's the only color I've got, dear.''

''Well,'' his daughter said, ''it looks very slimming.''

Not to mention spiritual.

Most Portlanders remember Monroe as City Hall's jovial, high-profile director of ports and transportation, who spent more than a decade overseeing everything from the construction of the Ocean Gateway terminal to the post-Sept. 11 operations at the Portland International Jetport. All of that ended in May of 2008, when budget cuts forced the elimination of 98 city jobs -- including Monroe's.

It turned out to be, quite literally, a blessing in disguise.

Saturday morning at the Trinity Anglican Church in Rochester, N.H., Bishop Brian Marsh will ordain Monroe, 55, into the priesthood of the Anglican Church in America. For the multitudes who might find that hard to fathom, rest assured it was no lightning-bolt decision.

''Ships come, ships go. Planes land, planes take off. Politicians get elected, politicians get un-elected,'' Monroe said. ''Bottom line -- what's the only thing you can depend on?''

Like any good preacher, he paused to let the question sink in.

''God,'' he finally said.

The word lingered for a moment inside St. Paul's Anglican Church, a 141-year-old sanctuary at the foot of Munjoy Hill where deep-rooted religious tradition is as palpable as the scent of burned incense that hangs in the air.

To understand what brought him here, Monroe explained, you need to go all the way back to his childhood days in New Jersey, where ''my whole life revolved around the church.''

He was raised a Lutheran, the son of a Scotch-German seafaring father and a half-Mexican, half-Aztec Indian mother. He inherited his mother's high cheekbones -- as a young boy, they made his eyes squint ''so everybody thought I was Chinese.''

''I used to get into a number of discussions with my classmates about that,'' Monroe said. ''Some of which were solved with a two-by-four.''

Bumps and bruises aside, Monroe said, ''everything we did, we did around the church.''

His parents were so devoutly religious that they had their pastor agree in writing to be Monroe's legal guardian should anything happen to them. As a teenager, Monroe joined a church youth group called the Luther League. It was while traveling with the group to hear the Rev. Billy Graham preach at Shea Stadium that Monroe first heard ''my calling.''

''At the end of his service, Billy Graham always used to do the altar call where people came down from the stands,'' Monroe said. ''And all of a sudden I just found myself getting up off my seat and going down. It was a moment in my life when I made a promise to God.''

At the time, Monroe hoped to become a Navy chaplain. But then he enrolled at Maine Maritime Academy, eventually got his captain's license, met his wife, Linda, taught at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, went to work for the Massachusetts Port Authority, moved to Maine, had two kids, worked as a merchant mariner, got a job with the city of Portland and what was that about becoming a preacher?

''When you feel a call from God, he doesn't quite let go of you,'' Monroe said, ''even though you let go of him.''

In other words, through the years of piloting ships, raising a family and navigating the depths of local politics, the spiritual tug never quite left him.

After moving to Maine in the late 1970s, Monroe eventually became a deacon at the Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cape Elizabeth. He also got involved with the Seafarer's Friend mission on the Portland waterfront, which led him to stop by one day at St. Paul's -- also known as The Maritime Church of the Port of Portland.

It was there that Monroe met Father Lester York, who would become his spiritual guide.

''I dropped in on him to introduce myself,'' Monroe said. ''We looked at each other's waistlines and realized we had a lot in common.''

Indeed. York had lost his first wife to cancer, so when Linda Monroe was diagnosed with breast cancer several years ago, York ''was right there at our side,'' Jeff Monroe said.

And when Linda, after successfully undergoing treatment for her cancer, turned to her husband one day and suggested they start attending church together (she was a devout Roman Catholic), the couple knew instantly where to go.

''We came here to St. Paul's,'' Monroe said.

Theologically, the Anglican Church in America is as conservative as they get. It opposes same-sex marriage, holds fast to a liturgy that Monroe describes as ''pre-Vatican II'' and adheres strictly to Scripture-based preaching. On the other hand, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, it allows its priests to marry.

All of which worked for Monroe. In 2005, even as he navigated the rough-and-tumble world of municipal politics, he quietly became a deacon in his new church and set his sights on the Anglican priesthood.

Then, last year, around the time Portland's fiscal crisis claimed Monroe's city job, Father York died.

''There he is right there, God rest his soul,'' Monroe said, pointing to an urn in the church's chapel that contains his mentor's ashes. It's the same urn Monroe used years ago to transport his own father's ashes for a burial at sea.

Since leaving City Hall, Monroe has split his time between working for the MacDonnell Group, a project management firm based in Nova Scotia, and completing his studies at the Anglican Church in America's Logos House for Theological Studies in Ellsworth.

He has also served as vicar (and on Saturday will become pastor) of the Holy Trinity Church in Fairfield. Beyond that, he's helping to establish a mission, St. Augustine's Parish, in Old Orchard Beach.

In short, Monroe has never been busier. Or happier.

He knows that this job, like any, will have its headaches.

When the bishop asked him if he was ready to take over Holy Trinity, he warned Monroe, ''You realize, of course, there can be a lot of politics in the church.''

''Hey, I learned from the best,'' Monroe replied. In his secular life, he assured the bishop, ''I played varsity politics.''

Still, he gets nervous at times. After putting members of the clergy ''on a pedestal'' all his life, Monroe still can't quite believe that he's about to become one.

''That's why I like the robes,'' he said with his trademark chuckle. ''People can't see your knees shaking.''

But he's ready. And as hard as it may have been to predict his future back in the spring of 2008, Monroe knows now that it all was meant to be.

''I remember when I was in government, people used to ask me all the time, 'What's your agenda? What's your agenda?''' Monroe said.

He paused for a moment. The church organist has just arrived to rehearse and, as if on cue, the rich, other-worldy music resounded throughout the old church.

Monroe smiled, soaking it all in.

''This is my agenda,'' he finally said. ''I needed to get closer to God.''

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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