Beloved St. Thomas Whitemarsh rector dies at 52


The Rev. Emily Barr Richards, who made history in January of 2022 when she became both the first female and the first disabled rector of the 326-year-old St. Thomas' Episcopal Church in Whitemarsh, died peacefully Jan. 16 after a courageous battle with cancer. She was 52 years old.

Born and raised in Lexington, Ky., the Rev. Emily Barr Richards was diagnosed as an infant with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and she spent much of her childhood in and out of hospitals. Nevertheless, thanks to her indomitable spirit and determination, she graduated from Lexington Catholic High School as "Girl of the Year," and she went on to graduate with honors, majoring in Latin, from The University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, where she later earned a master's in divinity."

Not always sure how she fit into an able-bodied world, Emily found a home and a sense of belonging in her church, Christ Church Cathedral in  Lexington, KY. Emily often said that her own physical struggles helped her have empathy in her pastoral care, which became legendary. She said her ministry was about “radical hospitality.”

Emily thrived in college, making hundreds of friends, graduating cum laude, and winning the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award. As a student at Sewanee, her call to be ordained a priest was confirmed, and several years after graduating she would return to earn her Masters of Divinity.

Emily was ordained to the priesthood in 2003 and then served as vicar of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Morehead, Ky., for four years, followed by four years as associate pastor of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ridgefield, Conn.

She then came to the Northwest Philadelphia region and spent 12 years as rector at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Glenside, which she left to become rector at St. Thomas. 

“My husband, Daniel, has a catering business, and his food is excellent,” she told me. “So I think people at St.Peter's were more sad about Daniel leaving than about me leaving…”

On a diocesan level, Emily served as Dean of the Montgomery Deanery, as a member of the Cathedral Chapter, and as a delegate to the Episcopal General Convention. Despite many accomplishments and accolades, she felt one of her greatest blessings was in welcoming and fully incorporating the parishioners of St. Phillip’s into the church family of St. Peter’s.

Emily’s greatest passion was for pastoral care. She approached every situation with an open heart and a collaborative spirit and was dedicated to making all people feel welcome, whether they were long-time parishioners or casual visitors. 

“I learned early on about faith, that there are no obstacles to living fully,” she told me in a 2012 interview, citing the fact that she grew up with juvenile arthritis, which wreaked havoc with her joints, used an electric stroller and wheelchair and never knew any female priests while growing up. 

“But I had a belief in myself that I could do it,” she said. “And when the able-bodied world said you cannot do this, the church said I could.”

As rector, Emily lived on the campus at St. Thomas – and loved it. 

“We call it the 'Holy Hill,' she told me. “I love it. I feel honored and humbled to be the first female rector in all these centuries. I love the fact that our holy hill was a place where people of all denominations came to have fellowship and to serve, for all those years. I want to keep this tradition alive – to renew, refresh and restore. As much as things have changed, this has stayed the same. Fellowship, worship, and service.”

Mt. Airy resident Cathy Davis, the outreach coordinator for Hosts for Hospitals, a nonprofit that finds volunteer housing for visiting families who come to Philadelphia for medical treatment, once described Richards as “a wonderful human being – so kind and caring and positive, always a pleasure to be around.”

Emily was always very matter-of-fact about her disability. 

“I use a scooter to give me stability. I can walk, but not far. Lay people help me get to different parts of the sanctuary,” she explained. “As a person who knows how it feels to be marginalized, I want all people to know they are welcome here.”

Emily is survived by a loving and grateful family. Her husband, Daniel, was entrusted with her safekeeping 27 years ago by her parents and brothers. Their daughter, Maggie, was Emily's greatest joy and treasure. Emily loved watching Maggie grow into a beautiful ballerina and marveled at her other creative endeavors. 

Her family in Lexington, KY, includes her parents, Garland and Donna Barr, brother Andy (Davis), brother Peter (Colleen), nieces and nephews Eleanor, Mary Clay, Bobby and Hale; aunts Elsie Barr, Barbara Faulconer (Richard), uncle Jim Faulconer; father-in-law Dan Richards and sister-in-law, Holly.

A memorial service will be held Thursday, Jan. 25, at 3 p.m., at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, 7020 Camp Hill Rd., Whitemarsh. In lieu of flowers, the Rev. Emily Barr Richards requested that donations be sent to Episcopal Community Services, 225 S. 3rd St., Philadelphia, PA 19106; The St. James School, 3217 W. Clearfield St., Philadelphia, PA 19132; or St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Whitemarsh.

Len Lear can be reached at