Jane Holmes Dixon, a stay-at-home Bethesda mom who became a priest in her 40s and later became the second female bishop in the Episcopal Church, died in her sleep early Christmas morning at her home in Washington. She was 75 and died of heart disease, her family said.

Bishop Dixon was seen as a warm, empathetic mentor, particularly to female lay leaders and clergy in the Episcopal Church, which has wrestled in recent decades with rifts over gender roles, sexuality and biblical literacy.

Her 17-month temporary term as bishop pro tempore of the Washington Diocese in 2001 and 2002 was dominated by a standoff with a rural parish in Prince George’s County whose rector, the Rev. Samuel L. Edwards, refused to recognize female authority.

The issue wound up in the headlines, including a scene of Bishop Dixon preaching on the church basketball court after church members refused to admit her to the sanctuary. Bishop Dixon filed a federal lawsuit, charging that Edwards had been improperly hired by the church, without her approval and in violation of canonical law.

The court ruled in Bishop Dixon’s favor, but the dispute scarred her standing with conservative Episcopalians, and she retired after the diocese elected a new leader in June 2002.

Bishop pro tempore of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, Jane Holmes Dixon, with the Washington National Cathedral in the background on March 27, 2001 in Washington. (Gerald Martineau/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Throughout her clerical career, Bishop Dixon was largely seen as an unassuming Southerner whose early familiarity with racial discrimination in her native Mississippi fueled deep faith-based activism. She entered the priesthood, her family explained, to build on her dedication to education and social justice issues, which became a focus of her attention while attending St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Washington.

Bishop Dixon wasn’t someone who set out to knock down gender barriers, her family and colleagues said, and she didn’t have the long list of accomplishments of other church leaders. She became an accidental pioneer whose rise in the church hierarchy was unexpected, even by herself.

She had been a priest for only 10 years when she was elected suffragan bishop, the second-highest rank among bishops, in Washington in 1992. She once told a meeting of Episcopal women that she “stepped out of the kitchen into a new and different world” when she became a priest in 1982.

At St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Laurel, where she was pastor, she held a squirming piglet in her arms during a sermon to promote support for farmers in Central America. She often told a humility-generating story about a national reporter interviewing her in 1992 after her election as Washington’s suffragan bishop. Bishop Dixon had her hair and nails done for the interview, during which she realized the reporter had her confused with the psychic Jeane Dixon.

Bishop John Bryson Chane, who became head of the diocese in 2002, said in an interview that Bishop Dixon was a trailblazer when elected — at the time one of only three female bishops in the entire Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. wing. She was the second female bishop in the United States.

Even though female bishops today still make up a small percentage of the total (18 of 300 living bishops), Chane said Bishop Dixon’s impact was major.

“A lot of women who started in Washington because of her then moved on to become rectors and deans” at large parishes and cathedrals around the country, he said. “She really cracked that door open.”

Jane Hart Holmes was born July 24, 1937, in Winona, Miss. She graduated from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where she met her husband, David Dixon, who became an attorney at the Justice Department. They were married in 1960.

He survives her, along with their three children, David Dixon Jr. of Bethesda, Edward Dixon of Shelburne, Vt., and Mary Raibman of Washington; and six grandchildren.

Bishop Dixon received her master of divinity degree in 1982 and doctorate of divinity in 1993 from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, she spoke at the national prayer service held at the Cathedral, standing beside President George W. Bush and urging Americans to “be united so that we will make that message of love the message that the world needs to hear.”

In recent years, she was invited to speak at the White House against hate crimes and served as president of the D.C.-based Interfaith Alliance, and she was recently focusing her attention on the region’s homeless.

In interviews and on a Facebook remembrance page, people used the phrase “steel magnolia” to describe Bishop Dixon, who would deliver her direct, firm views in a honeyed drawl.

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, the current Episcopal bishop of Washington, said Bishop Dixon’s refusal to back down from the legal standoff with Edwards and Christ Episcopal Church in Accokeek allowed later diocesan leaders to focus more on reconciliation with conservatives.

“I can afford a level of generosity because of people like Jane who took the blows of that fierce resistance,” Bishop Budde said.

But conservatives, some of whom have broken away from the Episcopal Church over theological disagreements, felt that Bishop Dixon was heavy-handed in refusing to let the parish pick its own priest.

Christ Church’s current rector, the Rev. Brian Vander Wel, said Wednesday that he had talked in recent weeks with Budde about the possibility of starting formal talks between parish members and Bishop Dixon to reach an understanding and move beyond the disputes of the past.

Commenters on the Facebook remembrance page pointed out one of Bishop Dixon’s favorite Biblical verses, from Micah 6. She mentioned it herself in a 2001 interview with Washingtonian magazine.

“My ministry has been a striving for justice,” she said. “ ‘Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.’ We tend to do a lot of loving justice and doing mercy, and that’s not what the scripture says.”