The Rev. Canon Diane Jardine Bruce, center, became the first woman elected… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
The Rev. Canon Diane Jardine Bruce still remembers the moment 23 years ago when she fell in love with the Episcopal Church.
Raised as a devout Roman Catholic, Bruce happened to visit an Episcopal parish in New Mexico, where the mother of a friend was officiating.
Bruce was moved by the joy inside the sanctuary and delighted by the sight of the female priest, something prohibited by the Catholic Church. She found unexpected similarities between the two approaches, including the Eucharist.
"There was something about being in an Episcopal church that felt like I had come home," she said.
Two decades later, Bruce would make history by becoming the first woman elected suffragan, or assistant bishop, in the 114-year history of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
Bruce's ascent at the diocese's annual convention earlier this month was eclipsed to a large degree by controversy over the election at the same event of an openly gay priest, the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool of Maryland, to a second assistant bishop's post.
But many in the Los Angeles diocese speak of Bruce, the longtime rector of St. Clement's by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in San Clemente, in reverential tones.
A banking executive for 17 years before she entered the priesthood, Bruce is widely credited with saving her San Clemente church from economic ruin. Her banking background has put her in high demand throughout the diocese, with top leaders and church rectors seeking her counsel.
Those who know Bruce, who is married with two adult children, also say she is spiritual, direct and self-effacing, a priest who knows how to minister to rich and poor alike. She is a cancer survivor who speaks three languages -- Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese -- and understands the diocese's multicultural makeup, they say.
"If people looked at who Diane is, they would be absolutely amazed," said the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, the diocese's primary bishop.
Bruce says she feels no ill will about Glasspool's capturing so much of the spotlight. "It never occurred to me that any attention would be paid to me being the first woman [bishop] because it's been done before" in other dioceses, she said.
Bruce grew up in Pequannock Township, N.J., which, as she points out, is perhaps best-known as the birthplace of New York Yankees star Derek Jeter.
One of five children (she has a twin sister four minutes older), she attended Catholic school as a girl, including daily Mass that gave her "a rich sense of peace."
Bruce fell into banking at 24, when a friend of her father suggested that she apply for a training program with San Francisco's Crocker Bank (later bought by Wells Fargo). She spent the next 17 years at Wells, managing various units, including those responsible for international banking operations and incentive compensation plans for commercial and corporate officers.
It wasn't until Bruce was 30 that she found her way to the Episcopal Church -- on that chance visit to the New Mexico parish with her college roommate.
A short time later, she attended another service by a female priest back home in suburban San Francisco. Afterward, she said, she heard a voice. "When are you going to stop running and say yes to me?" it asked.
She began taking classes and soon was received into the church.
She decided to pursue the ministry, ultimately being ordained to the priesthood in 1998.
When she arrived at St. Clement's in San Clemente in 2000, she found a church that was $10,000 in the red and nearly unable to meet payroll.
Members had fled and pledges had dried up as two rectors left in the 1990s amid accusations of personal or sexual misconduct, according to longtime church members and diocese officials.
Bruce scrutinized contracts for such things as copy machines, and she looked for bargains on items as seemingly insignificant as bathroom soap.
She addressed the financial crunch at Sunday services, telling parishioners at one point that the church could hire a Sunday school director for the monthly interest it was paying on $30,000 in bank debt. Within a short time, the church had raised the money, according to Bruce and Audrey Daigle, who was the church's senior lay leader at the time and also served on the search committee that found Bruce.
"We saw in her a very dedicated, faithful person," Daigle said.
At the end of Bruce's first year, St. Clement's was operating in the black, Daigle recalled. The church began to grow again, attracting some who had left and newcomers, including Spanish-speakers.
Jon and Karin Sherman, who had drifted from the church, were among those who found renewed commitment. "We have gone from distance to involved again," Jon Sherman said.
During her years as a priest in the diocese, Bruce has advised other churches on fundraising, and served on the diocese's investment trust board and as president of its standing committee of elected lay and clergy members that approves such things as property transactions and candidates for ordination to the priesthood.
The Rev. Canon Brad Karelius at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana, where Bruce served as an intern and associate rector, recalled her ability to move comfortably among different groups.
"She's able to speak to very poor immigrants as well as very well-to-do matriarchs," said Karelius, who nominated Bruce last spring for the assistant bishop job. "She can talk to anybody."
Not long after Bruce was nominated, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to continue her quest for the job -- six candidates were vying for the two slots -- even as she underwent chemotherapy, at one point introducing herself in a video to the diocese wearing a head scarf but noting that her doctor had given her a clean bill of health.
Bruce's hair was stubbly when she appeared at the December convention, but she betrayed no sign of fear over the bout of cancer.
"I've never felt alone," she said. "No matter what the struggle, I felt God was walking with me."