By Carly Nations

The Rev. Dr. Matilda Eeleen Greene Dunn, T'94, T'14, one of the first two Black women to graduate from the School of Theology in 1994 and former lay chaplain for All Saints’ Chapel, died on Jan. 4, 2021, after an impressive and full life of service. We remember her and thank her for her contributions to Sewanee and the Church during Women’s History Month.


As a lay chaplain, Dunn served under the tenure of three University chaplains—the Rev. William Millsaps, the Rev. Samuel Lloyd, and the Rev. Thomas Ward. Her fellow lay chaplain at All Saints’ from 1988 to 1991, Peter Gudaitis, spoke fondly of Dunn as a friend, colleague, and mother-figure. Gudaitis, who moved to Sewanee fresh from an undergraduate degree from Kenyon College, remembers Dunn as someone who affected the lifelong trajectory of his own ministry. “Her ministry was focused on working with minority students on diversity, equity, and inclusion. At the time that Sam Lloyd arrived, a woman had never officiated at any liturgy in All Saints’ Chapel—women in ministry was still a controversial topic.” Together, Dunn and Gudaitis worked to improve diversity and inclusion on Sewanee’s campus and both would go on to work toward diversity in the wider Episcopal Church for their careers. 


Born and raised in Greenville, Liberia, Dunn received her education at St. John’s Episcopal High School in Grand Cape Mount County, Liberia, and later completed her bachelor’s degree in the United States at Bloomfield College, where she would graduate with high honors. While in the United States, Dunn met her husband, Elwood, who would become her lifelong companion. She went on to earn her master of science in biology and education from Southern Illinois University, after which she returned to Liberia with her husband in the 1970s. There, she taught biology to hundreds of students before returning to the United States, fleeing violence after the outbreak of the Liberian Civil War in 1980. 


Elwood Dunn joined the faculty of the University of the South in 1981, bringing their growing family of three to the Mountain. Dunn continued to teach biology, this time at St. Andrew’s Sewanee School until hearing the call to ministry. Dunn sought ordination in The Episcopal Church and was ordained a priest in 1995.


As the recent events on campus have revealed, Sewanee’s ability to reconcile itself with its Confederate past is still very much in progress. Thus, the work begun by Matilda Dunn is the work being continued today. As the University of the South looked to its past in preparation for its future, Dunn’s presence as a Black woman in a position of leadership played an integral role in bringing racial reconciliation to the forefront of that conversation. 


“Sewanee has always struggled to reconcile itself with its southern identity, even though the University has made a lot of very conscious decisions to try and change its image,” Gudaitis stated. “They were working very hard to recruit Black and other minority students and Matilda was part of the strategy to have someone on campus that could be a pastoral presence to these students and help the school figure out how to be a better community for diversity. All of us were part of that same mission to change Sewanee, not from bad to good, but to help encourage it to take a hard look at itself and ask how it could be a better reflection of the Anglican Communion and not just the southern Episcopal church.” 


Even with these challenges, Dunn’s influence on the Church, particularly for Sewanee and for the Diocese of East Tennessee, was profound. After graduating with her master of divinity degree from the School of Theology, Dunn served on the Sewanee Board of Trustees, one of the first three Black alumni to do so and the second Black woman. Dunn went on to earn her doctorate of ministry from the School of Theology in 2014 and was a founding member of the Liberian Episcopal Community of the United States of America (LECUSA). Her doctoral thesis was later published as a book. She served in parishes throughout East Tennessee up until her retirement, after which she moved from Tennessee to Maryland to be with her children and grand-children. 


In the eulogies delivered at her services, everyone spoke of Dunn’s shining smile and welcoming presence. She was pastoral and warm and beloved by everyone who knew her. Being around her meant being changed by her presence. Gudaitis agreed, “She was such an upbeat, optimistic, loving, forgiving, laughing person. Even with all the horrible things she’d seen—her friends being executed in Liberia, escaping for her life, living in the rural South as an African woman—she was never anything other than optimistic and positive. Not in a naive way, but just because she was more full of love than she was tied down by the tragedies of her life.”


In this time when Sewanee is once again faced with the ugliness of its past, it is important to remember the contributions of those who have already begun paving the way forward. As we have learned in this historic moment of nationwide racial reckoning, the voices of Black women have continued to call us to account, demanding justice and equality in all of America’s most sacred, white spaces. Matilda Dunn was an early voice in Sewanee’s slow but steady movement toward reconciliation. She was an important Black, female voice in a space that otherwise felt challenged by her identity and leadership. Her presence in that space, even after death, remains integral to Sewanee’s history and the continuation of the necessary work still to be accomplished at the University of the South.