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Wednesday, March 13, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rev. Dr. Laura Fraser blazed religious trail

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Rev. Dr. Laura Cameron Fraser was a spiritual explorer who broke new ground as the first woman Episcopal priest in the Pacific Northwest and left the church a decade later when it would no longer accommodate her journey.

Despite that parting, the Rev. Fraser, who died of a stroke in East Wenatchee on March 2, will be honored in a Eucharist at St. Mark's Cathedral next week. She was 70.

It is an event expected to bring together Episcopal parishioners and people who followed the Rev. Fraser's later spiritual explorations, which drew from New Age concepts and other faiths.

"She will be the link," said the Rev. Michael Jackson, who worked with the Rev. Fraser at Epiphany Church in Seattle's Madrona neighborhood.

The Rev. Fraser's ordination in 1977 was a major event, drawing clergy from across the country. The church had cleared the way for female priests at its national conference the year before, but not everyone was pleased.

When the Rev. Fraser was ordained, a rival Mass was held across town, attended by parishioners who didn't believe women should be priests.

But at Epiphany Church, "it was perceived as a real victory," Jackson said. Fifty or more priests joined in the ceremony, and when a bagpiper in the balcony played "Amazing Grace," there was hardly a dry eye in the place.

With that, the Rev. Fraser became the first female priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia, which covers Western Washington, and one of the first female Episcopal priests in the nation.

Born the third of five children on May 13, 1931, she was valedictorian of her high-school class at Tacoma's St. Leo's in 1947. She graduated from the University of Southern California in 1955 with a bachelor's degree in sociology and psychology.

She married Swiss-born Joseph Fries in 1956 and had a son, Cameron Fries, who is now a vintner in Quincy, Grant County. She and her husband divorced some years later.

After working as a social worker in Los Angeles, she returned to USC for a teaching certificate and taught in California high schools from 1961 to 1968. Returning to the Northwest, she earned a master's degree in philosophy at the University of Washington in 1968 and taught two years at what was then Southern Oregon College in Ashland.

In 1975, the Rev. Fraser obtained a doctorate from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.

She was made a deacon at Epiphany and two years later was ordained.

In 1980, she became rector at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Issaquah.

But in 1986, her spiritual wanderings clashed with the orthodoxy of Episcopal church leaders, particularly over her use of the New Age spiritual teachings of a channeler who claimed to speak with the voice of an ancient spirit named "Jonah."

"She was a restless spirit," said Roderick Cameron, a brother of the Rev. Fraser. "She was always searching for spiritual growth — it was a lifelong pattern."

The Rev. Fraser left the church rather than repudiate her spiritual explorations. She established the Foundation for Inner Enlightenment and Spiritual Freedom, which offered classes in spiritual development and conducted experimental worship services.

A couple of years ago, she moved to East Wenatchee to be near her son and his family. At the time of her death, she was working on a book about her spiritual growth.

In addition to her son, the Rev. Fraser is survived by a sister, Rosemary Thompson of Gig Harbor; her brothers, Roderick Cameron of Seattle and Robert Cameron of West Virginia; and two grandsons.

A memorial service will be held at St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral, 1245 10th Ave. E., Seattle, at 1 p.m. March 21.

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