Marjorie Farmer, 90, Episcopal minister, esteemed civic leader

Posted: June 08, 2012

MARJORIE FARMER would go out on the beach at Cape May in the early morning, at one with the rolling surf and the cry of gulls, and kick through the sand, deep in thought.

She was an Episcopal priest and her thoughts might have soared into realms of the spirit. She was also a longtime educator, and maybe she was thinking about the challenges of teaching, or pondering the eternal truths she encountered in her extensive reading.

"Her absolute pastime of choice was always to explore new thoughts and ideas through reading from her vast book collection," her family said in an obituary. "Throughout her life, Marjorie enjoyed all of the passages that she traveled through and looked forward to every challenge and triumph that transpired."

And there were many. Some she shared with her distinguished husband, Clarence Farmer Sr., but most were the products of her own drive and dedication as educator, civic leader, author, priest and family matriarch.

Marjorie Louise Nichols Farmer, who was raised by remarkable parents and married a remarkable man, who educated both students and fellow teachers, and wrote extensively on educational subjects, died Saturday at age 90. She and her husband were living in the Kearsley Rehabilitation and Nursing Home in Bala Cynwyd, having previously lived in Mount Airy and Elkins Park.

They also had a home in Cape May, where Marjorie enjoyed the beach. "That's where she had many moments of inspiration," said her granddaughter, Nicole Farmer-Woodard.

Marjorie was born in Hartford, Conn., to the Rev. Edward K. Nichols Sr. and Laura Ella Drake Nichols. Her father was a highly esteemed pastor who, in 1945, was the first African-American to receive a degree from the Yale Divinity School.

Her mother served on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work and was a pioneer in that field.

The family moved to Philadelphia when Marjorie was a child so that her father could preside as minister of Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church, in the city's Powelton section.

She graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1939. Her family said that she had dreams of advanced studies in English and literature, but that her parents convinced her to become a teacher. She graduated from Temple University in 1946 with bachelor's and master's degrees in education.

As a Temple undergrad, she met Clarence Farmer. He became a legendary figure in Philadelphia, serving over the years as chairman of the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations, president of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., chairman of the African American Museum, and other civic activities. They were married in April 1943.

Marjorie became an English teacher in the Philadelphia School District. She taught at Furness Junior High School and at Simon Gratz and Germantown high schools.

She went on to become an assistant professor of education at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University. She returned to Philadelphia to become curriculum specialist in English and language arts for the school district, a position she held until the early '80s. She received a doctorate in education from Temple in 1975.

In 1977, Marjorie became president of the National Council of Teachers of English, a position she used to educate teachers, "and to voice her opinion on how language should be utilized to advance the profession of teaching and to advance the lives of students," her family said.

"Her level of dedication to English and to the teaching profession was unwavering and forever demonstrated in both her personal communications and in her professional writings."

Marjorie wrote and edited numerous professional articles and books, including a textbook on grammar and composition.

Her spiritual journey began at Grace Episcopal Church in Mount Airy, where she served as a deacon. After retiring from the school district, she entered the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy in 1982. She was ordained an Episcopal priest on May 31, 1988, and served as priest-in-charge at St. Matthias Episcopal Church in West Oak Lane. When the church closed, she led her congregation to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Elkins Park. She served as assistant rector until her retirement in late 1999.

During her time in the ministry, Marjorie also provided chaplain services to the Youth Study Center, and was a member of the Philadelphia Black Clergy and the Union of Black Episcopalians.

As a civic leader, she served on the boards of the Franklin Institute and the Center in the Park, a charity for seniors founded by her mother. She also served as an emeritus member of the board of the Free Library.

She was a golden soror of the Omega Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She was also a member of the Penn Towne Chapter of Links Inc.

Besides her husband, she is survived by a son, Franklin; two other grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by another son, Clarence "Skip" Farmer Jr., who died in 1999.

Services: 11 a.m. Monday at Cathedral Church of the Saviour, 3723 Chestnut St. Friends may call at 9 a.m. Burial will be private. n

Contact John F. Morrison at 215-854-5573 or, or on Twitter @johnfmorrison.

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