For more than a century, the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s chancellor, a senior curial official for the archbishop, has been a priest.

Now, that unofficial tradition is being broken as Barbara Dowding, vice-chancellor and former national president of the Catholic Women’s League, takes one of the top positions in the archdiocese, the first lay person and the first woman to do so.

“She is extraordinarily capable,” said Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB. “She has all those leadership gifts that were finely honed by her experiences as a CWL head and has done a great job as vice-chancellor.”

He said the position of chancellor is an ancient one in the Church hierarchy that mainly involves record-keeping, notarizing, and being the “original stamper of authenticity and legitimacy.” There is no requirement that the chancellor be a member of the clergy.

He added Dowding isn’t the first woman in Canada to become a chancellor, but she is one of very few.

“It’s humbling, it really is,” Dowding told The B.C. Catholic. “To be given the trust that goes with [the position] … it means the world to me.”

Dowding has a long history of serving the archdiocese, beginning in 1997 when she worked under judicial vicar Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo in the Marriage Tribunal.

She also served as a general secretary for the Archdiocesan Synod from 1998-2003, the lead organizer for the archdiocese’s Jubilee Year 2000 celebrations, the inaugural director of the archdiocesan Stewardship Office, and, in recent years, the official notary for Archbishop Miller’s parish visits.

As vice-chancellor, Dowding has served under many priest-chancellors for the last 16 years.

Dowding meets with assistant to the vicar general Natalie Aguilar.

She is looking forward to the new appointment and says it’s significant that a woman is taking the role.

“I know that, as a woman, I bring different gifts. I’ve seen it many times,” she said. “Archbishop Miller really does believe that women add a lot of value to what we do.”

Former chancellor Father Joseph Le is pleased Dowding will take his place. “I would like to congratulate Barb for her new role as chancellor. It is history in the making.”

Father Le is transitioning full-time to his role as Judicial Vicar and Vicar for Marriage, filling the role after the death of longtime Judicial Vicar Msgr. Pedro Lopez-Gallo.

Father Le said involving lay people in top positions of the Church is a “no brainer.”

“The Church is universal and priests are only part of it. It is a community of people working together. Priests are ordained to do certain things, but they are not experts in everything. You need to find experts in many things who relate to the lives of the people, and the lay people are the ones who are experts. We have to learn to rely on that expertise.”

Archbishop Miller also said involving more lay people has become something of a social trend, including in the Church at large.

“When you think about it, why not? Of course it should be,” he said.

Dowding with administration assistant Janet Pearson in the Archbishop’s Office.

He said until recently the advisory committee for vocations consisted entirely of priests; now it includes a deacon, a sister, and a lay woman. The archdiocese’s file review committee, studying historic cases of abuse by clergy, also highlighted the importance of the involvement of women.

Dowding officially begins her new appointment Aug. 1. She said the role is heavy on paperwork, including the keeping of records, ensuring policies are upheld, offering guidance to parishes on regulations, acting as the archdiocese’s official notary, and keeping thorough archives of archdiocesan history in the making.

“Whatever comes along, if I can, I will,” she said.

Father Pablo Santa Maria Watson, who has just completed studies in canon law, will succeed her as vice-chancellor.