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Olivia de Havilland, lector

Olivia de Havilland, lector

Olivia de Havilland died Sunday in Paris at the age of 104. Her British mother raised her as an Episcopalian. She was a member of the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, Paris.

Bishop Pierre Whalon interviewed her about lay reading. From an essay that appeared in Anglicans Online 2012:

Olivia de Havilland was one of the first women lectors at the Cathedral in Paris. In the 1970s, the then-Dean, the Very Rev. Robert G. Oliver, determined to introduce women as lectors. It was a daring innovation for the time in that congregation. According to Miss de Havilland, he began by asking a conservative wife of a corporate executive. She was followed by another impeccably dressed lady of similar standing. Finally he ended with “the movie actress.” By then people had grown accustomed to women readers, even liking the contrast with masculine voices. Until fairly recently, Miss de Havilland was on the regular rota for reading.

Today she still reads for major feasts and special occasions, such as a memorial service for another previous Dean, Sturgis Riddle. She kindly shared with me her method of preparation, which is a model for every lector to consider, and not just among Episcopalians.

She showed me the texts she had read last Christmas Eve. Each was printed out in large type, and festooned with underlines, semi-colons, and other diacritical marks. “I think I prepare in a way the Church would not approve — I add punctuations.” I replied that the original Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible had virtually no punctuation at all. “The punctuation marks help me to get the right inflections.”

And how can she tell what to choose? “I start on the preceding Monday by reading the texts I am assigned. The next day I re-read them, and I think the night’s sleep often helps me see things I hadn’t noticed at first.” Then Miss de Havilland wrestles with the text, to find its underlying “architecture.” “You have to convey the deep meaning, you see, and it has to start with your own faith.” During the days that follow, she tries to figure out what the text means to her, and then how best to get it across.

Blessed with a resonant alto voice as well as her training, she reads with a natural authority. “But first I always pray. I pray before I start to prepare, as well. In fact, I would always say a prayer before shooting a scene, so this is not so different, in a way.”


Bishop Allin with Olivia de Havilland, Gone with the Wind actor, Episcopalian, and Venture in Mission Cabinet member. In 1977, Allin called on de Havilland to be a part of VIM. Archives of the Episcopal Church.

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Steven Eric Ketola

I wish that I had present for one of her readings. A few pop to mind that I think she would have done especially well.

Kathy Franklin

Her voice, reading the Scriptures, must have been inspiring.

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