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CALIFORNIA: Episcopal priest, former prison inmate, chosen as San Francisco rector


The Reverend James Tramel will be the next rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco.  

[Episcopal News Service]  The Rev. James Tramel, 38, who was convicted in 1986 of being present when a homeless man was killed in Santa Barbara, and paroled from prison in March 2006, has been chosen as the next rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in San Francisco.

Trinity, at the corner of Bush and Gough streets, was established in 1849 and is the oldest Episcopal congregation on the Pacific Coast. It is the second oldest congregation in San Francisco.

Tramel became both a deacon and priest while serving a 15-years-to-life sentence in Solano State Prison in Vacaville, California.

Tramel was present when David Kurtzman stabbed a homeless man, Michael Stephenson, to death in a park in Santa Barbara, California. Tramel was 17 at the time of the murder and was attending Northwestern Preparatory School in Santa Barbara. He had an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Tramel, Kurtzman and other students set out one night to confront some gang members whom they said had attacked a fellow student, according to an account of the murder Tramel wrote for a parole board hearing.

The students did not find any gang members but Kurtzman and Tramel encountered Stephenson in the park's large gazebo. Tramel wrote that he turned his back on Kurtzman and Stephenson while he was standing on the far side of the gazebo. He heard a sound that made him turn around, only to see Kurtzman stabbing Stephenson.

Prior to becoming a priest, Tramel began an Episcopal congregation at the Vacaville prison, which started with a group of inmates saying prayers from the Book of Common Prayer. Eventually, the congregation grew, and chaplains began visiting to conduct full communion services.

In 1998, Tramel became the first inmate ever admitted to an Episcopal seminary when he entered the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) in Berkeley, California. He earned a Master of Theological Studies degree in May 2003. Students, faculty and staff from CDSP regularly traveled to the prison and talked to Tramel on the phone during his studies.

Tramel joined the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Berkeley. When the congregation decided to sponsor him for ordination, he met with members of the congregation and the California Commission on Ministry through letters, over the phone, and in the visiting room at Solano Prison. Swing ordained him to the diaconate at the prison on July 4, 2004.

Swing ordained Tramel to the priesthood on June 18, 2005 at the prison. He is the first person ordained to the Episcopal priesthood while incarcerated.

Tramel was licensed to serve the prison congregation by Bishop Jerry A. Lamb of Northern California.