Episcopal deacon Jackie Watt broke down walls for herself and others

Seasoned parish pastoral counselor and hospital chaplain counseled, served the needy and children
Jackie Watt was a Episcopal deacon and counselor at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta - Scottish Rite

Credit: Courtesy of family

Credit: Courtesy of family

Jackie Watt was a Episcopal deacon and counselor at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta - Scottish Rite

Jackie Watt believed that her ordination as a deacon in the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta made perfect sense.

For some others, not so much. Roadblocks stood in her way in the mid 1990s.

No Episcopal deacon had been ordained here in more than a decade — and no woman had ever held the office. Some top leaders questioned whether the need for such a ministry had passed. A family member remembered some pushback against elevating a woman as well.

Appearing before the diocesan bishop, Watt, a seasoned parish pastoral counselor and hospital chaplain, argued that the church’s writings made it clear, and that her research showed service and outreach, particularly to those less fortunate, were core responsibilities of a deacon.

“When she left the room after the presentation, the bishop said ‘You know she’s right,’” said the Rev. John Porter, a former rector at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church in Sandy Springs. “It was the meaning of her whole life.”

The Rev. Jacqueline Tyndale Watt, who brought intellectual heft, notable service and a full-on approach to a life that ranged from counseling the bereaved to to cheering on her beloved Atlanta Braves and University of Georgia Bulldogs, died July 10 at age 87 of natural causes. A funeral service was held July 15.

Watt’s work as a counselor at Holy Innocents’ was a cornerstone of her service. After doing intake interviews with those who knocked on the doors for help, she’d call on the needy, sick and lonely, bearing her tools — groceries, rent money, empathy, guidance. She worked with unflagging determination.

“She didn’t take no for an answer,” daughter Paige Watt said. “When she decides on something she goes as far as she can.”

That same approach was a beacon during more than 25 years as a chaplain at what’s now Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite.

Watt spent a decade working in the intensive care unit, a particularly difficult assignment, said Sheila Vahey, a 36-year veteran of the institution.

She was caring and respectful but also honest and direct in serving as a buffer and communications link between medical specialists, young patients and their families.

That included cases where families had to make sometimes wrenching decisions about the care, or ending care, of their little ones.

“She was amazing in how she could bring down the tone in the room and just concentrate on the total family and total care,” she said.

She also helped establish a home host program wherein places to stay were found for out-of-town families dealing with hospitalized children, a precursor to the Ronald McDonald House.

Friends and family say her pastoral counseling role with the parish brought the realization that Sandy Springs was changing in the 1990s, becoming more socioeconomically diverse and international, with an attendant rise in community needs. Watt spearheaded a coalition of churches creation of what became the Community Assistance Center, which provides a rainbow of services from food, rent and housing assistance to educational and financial aid.

“The ministers who joined together were very committed (but) nobody put in the amount of hours she did building the community around an idea, " former volunteer Tamara Carrera said, noting that Watt worked tirelessly to put together $20,000 in startup funding and handle the unglamorous but necessary paperwork.

Watt also headed school PTAs and her college sorority among other organizations. But on at least one occasion, that willingness to step up got her into a spot of trouble.

Porter said Watt attended a wedding where she was close friends with the bride. The other minister did not show up so she performed the service, something that deacons were allowed to do only in extraordinary circumstances, having gotten permission first.

“The bishop was furious,” recalled Porter. “In the course of their meeting, he asked her ‘What do you expect of me?’ She said, “I just want you to be my pastor.’”

What she meant was, I just want you to understand me and be compassionate to me, as I was compassionate to the bride, Porter said.

“You just couldn’t stay mad at Jackie for long.” Porter reflected.

Rev. Watt is survived by three children, Shayne Watt Kerfoot (Jimmy) and their three children, daughter M. Paige Watt, and son John (Carrie) and their four children, as well as a number of great-grandchildren.