hen Ketlen and Scott Solak moved into their home in the Twin Hills neighborhood last summer, they received a knock at their door. They were delighted to find an entire family—mom, dad, and two little girls—who had come to introduce themselves to their new neighbors, bearing a plate of homemade chocolate chip cookies. This was after another neighbor brought a tart from La Gourmandine, and another brought wine and a box of macarons, and countless others went out of their way to say hello to the Solaks while they were walking their dog, Cinder, around the neighborhood.
“I would like to say that hospitality is close to God’s heart, and I have found our neighbors to be very hospitable,” said Dr. Ketlen Solak, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.
She and Scott visited St. Paul’s Episcopal Church several times throughout the episcopal election process, and they fell in love with Mt. Lebanon. So last year, after Bishop Ketlen made history as the first woman and the first person of color to head the diocese, and the Solaks had just one day to find a home in Pittsburgh, they started their search here—and felt fortunate that it was so successful.
“God provided,” said Bishop Ketlen, who generally chooses to forgo some of the grander forms of address for an Episcopal bishop, such as “Your Grace” or “Your Excellence,” in favor of the English form, which is “Bishop [first name].”
Bishop Ketlen was born in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti, to Roman Catholic parents, and moved to the United States as a teenager to pursue her education. A talented musician, she was accepted to The Catholic University of America’s piano performance program, which is where she met Scott.
“We met at our audition,” Scott said. “They put us in the same room to warm up on the pianos … we’ve known each other since we were 17.” Scott’s father was a Marine, and he lived in Hawaii, California and Maryland before coming to Washington, D.C., for college.
“We’ve been best friends since then,” added Bishop Ketlen.
Both graduated from The Catholic University of America—Scott, with a degree in music composition. He went on to pursue a career in music, as an accomplished composer, pianist, church musician and music teacher. In fact, when the couple moved to Mt. Lebanon, everyone in his 25-student studio decided to continue their studies with him virtually. Now that the Solaks are settled in, he’s hoping to establish a teaching presence here in Mt. Lebanon, too.
Bishop Ketlen also earned her Bachelor of Music in piano performance and later a Master of Music from The Catholic University of America, but all the while, her spiritual journey was growing in significance.
“It began in my teens, actually, that I had a real thirst to know the Bible … that continued into my young adulthood. At some point, I decided to read the entire Bible from beginning to end, so I would just read chapters and chapters and chapters on end,” said Bishop Ketlen. “And through that reading, and particularly, through Paul’s letter to the Romans, which I love … I just had that sense. It was brief, but it was a sense of call. I felt called to ordained ministry.”
She said this was confusing for her, as a Catholic woman, “But it was something that I entrusted to God.”
It was not until a friend invited the Solaks to Mass at an Episcopal church that she felt her path become clearer. “It felt like home from the very first visit … We loved the great combination of that Catholic liturgy, yet with this Episcopal, Protestant theological understanding,” said Bishop Ketlen.
“The thing that looks different about an Episcopal church is the presence of women on the altar,” Scott added. “One of the things that drew us to the Episcopal church was the role of women.”
So the Solaks decided to become Episcopalians. After converting and spending some time in the church, Bishop Ketlen entered the seminary. She graduated with a Master of Divinity from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 2005, and, after her ordination, served as the associate rector at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, until 2014.
She then became the founding rector for a partnership of three parishes in Wilmington, Delaware, called Brandywine Collaborative Ministries, while also earning her Doctor of Ministry from the Virginia Theological Seminary in 2016.
Back here in Pittsburgh in 2019, Bishop Dorsey McConnell announced his intention to retire. In the Episcopal Church, bishops are chosen through an extensive election process involving a national search, nominations, thorough vetting and several rounds of voting until the clergy and lay leaders on the diocese’s standing committee can come to a majority decision. The Rev. Noah Evans, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, was the president of the committee for this search.
COVID-19 caused several delays to the process, but Bishop Ketlen was nominated, along with four other candidates, in May 2021. Over the course of the next month, she came to Pittsburgh many times for interviews, “meet and greets” at different parishes, and had to submit videos and biographical materials for the committee’s consideration.
“I immediately felt a sense of affinity to here. ‘Might I be being called to Pittsburgh?’” she asked. “But I just remained open to what God had in mind. Without a sense of feeling entitled to the position, but just being open to it.”
When she was elected to become the ninth bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh the next month, she famously said she was ready to become “a Pittsburgher for Jesus” in her acceptance speech—a slogan that appeared on T-shirts in the Calvary Episcopal Church bookstore within the week. Bishop Ketlen, while aware of her status as a groundbreaker, does not wish to be defined by that single achievement.
“That is not the way I take my identity, but I do hope and pray and look forward to the day when that will be so commonplace that it will no longer be an issue of conversation. That it will be so commonplace that it’s just yet another person who was elected, and be as such,” she said.
The consent process immediately followed an election, wherein standing committees at dioceses around the nation have 120 days to confirm the Pittsburgh diocese’s decision. Finally, Bishop Ketlen was ordained and consecrated in the diocese’s first major gathering since the COVID-19 pandemic began at Calvary Episcopal Church in East Liberty on Saturday, November 13, 2021.
The Solaks’ family and friends flew in from all over the U.S. and beyond. Scott composed an anthem for choir and organ, titled How Beautiful are the Feet, based on text from the book of Isaiah, for the occasion.
“The entire ceremony was absolutely beautiful,” said Scott, who explained how even the vestments were specially made, featuring embroidered bougainvillea flowers that were representative of her Haitian heritage.
Now, a year into her service as bishop, and more than a year at her home in Mt. Lebanon, Bishop Ketlen has adapted to her new—and incredibly busy—lifestyle. For example, she has had to resign herself to the fact that leading a diocese requires a lot of meetings.
“Like yesterday? That was my whole day,” said Bishop Ketlen, with a laugh. The bishop’s seat, and the diocesan offices, are at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral downtown, and she was pleasantly surprised by the easy commute from Mt. Lebanon. Yet she sometimes chooses to host meetings online or closer to home in some of the Solaks’ favorite places on Beverly Road, such as Mediterra Café and The Coffee Tree Roasters.
“If she invites you to coffee, you know she means business,” Scott warned.
She also spends a lot of time in prayer, preparing sermons for Sundays. According to Episcopal Church Canons, a bishop must visit each parish in the diocese every three years. Because of the size of the Pittsburgh diocese, however—33 parishes in an 11-county area spanning southwestern Pennsylvania, accounting for more than 9,000 parishioners—Bishop Ketlen would like to visit each parish once a year.
She is the chief celebrant for the day when she visits a parish, often performing confirmations, baptisms and other important ceremonies, in addition to Sunday Mass.
“She also has a very beautiful singing voice, which she sometimes shows when she visits parishes or has a diocesan function,” said Scott. He went on to describe her visit to St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Blairsville in May, when she sang Amazing Grace accompanied by a brass septet. “Oh, that really was fun!” said Bishop Ketlen.
Being a bishop also requires a certain amount of work outside the diocese. For example, in the past year, she has traveled to Houston to meet with the House of Bishops, to Baltimore for the Episcopal Church’s national convention and flown to Canterbury, England, for a worldwide meeting of bishops, which happens only once every decade.
All of these experiences have helped inform her first year in the office, which, for her, was all about getting to know the diocese. “We are preparing for my first more official convention this fall, and at that time, I can outline the vision that I see for the next year, the next few years.”
She expects that some of her vision will focus on reconnection, as the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on human interaction and the role of community in our lives. But even outside of her official plan for the diocese, she also feels that reconnecting with God—or one’s spiritual life—can be invaluable.
“We live in a world where people are everywhere in their journey of faith,” said Bishop Ketlen.
“I would not presume that people are not connected to God, but it is important not to neglect that aspect of life, and to find a way to trust God, especially in the times that are troubling.”