Rogue Catholic Bishops Ordain Women in Canada

Earlier this week, nine Roman Catholic women were ordained to serve as priests and deacons in the church — an act the Vatican denounced as illegal. Two women from Germany and Austria, unofficially declared bishops, performed the rites on a boat in the river between Ontario, Canada, and northern New York state. The women say they were undeterred by the threat of excommunication. Greg Warner of North Country Public Radio reports.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Nine Roman Catholic women defied the church and became priests this week during a ceremony on a boat in the St. Lawrence River. The Vatican says that's a violation of canon law, and even participating in the ceremony could jeopardize the women's standing in the church. Gregory Warner of North Country Public Radio reports.

(Soundbite of people talking)

Unidentified Woman: Please, have your ...(unintelligible) with you.

GREGORY WARNER reporting:

In a hotel lobby, Regina Nicolosi adjusts her white robe and tie-dye silk sash. She's 63, a chaplain in a nursing home in Red Wing, Minnesota. She's wanted to be a priest since she was six. Three years ago Nicolosi heard that seven women had been ordained on a boat on the Danube River. The so-called Danube Seven were promptly excommunicated. Nicolosi didn't care. She started training with the organization known as Roman Catholic Women Priests(ph).

Ms. REGINA NICOLOSI (Roman Catholic Priest): I finally found a place to answer my call and not leave the Catholic Church.

WARNER: Some would say that you are leaving the Catholic Church.

Ms. NICOLOSI: Yes, I think some of the bishops in the messages we get from the Vatican are that we are excommunicating ourselves, and I just want to answer I don't ever remember doing that.

(Soundbite of a group of people)

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, I saw her yesterday but I haven't seen her...

WARNER: The eight Americans and a Canadian walk single file to the river. They're led by three women in tie-dye red silk robes. These are the bishops, two of them ordained in a secret ceremony two years ago. Patricia Fresen is one of the group's founders.

Ms. PATRICIA FRESEN (Roman Catholic Women Priests): They were ordained bishops by some male bishops in good standing with Rome and who certainly are not excommunicated. But that was very, very secret.

WARNER: The Vatican calls all these ordinations illegal and an affront to the dignity of women. Fresen hopes it's just a matter of time. A former Benedictine nun, she runs a program for aspiring women clergy.

Ms. FRESEN: There are some women in our program who are parish administrator of two parishes and they run everything. They bring in a priest to say Mass and do a baptism here and that there, but they actually run the whole parish. So there is a changing role of women. But this last part of actually ordaining us, they simply back off. And so we are pushing it.

(Soundbite of ceremony in progress)

WARNER: The boat leaves port from Gananoque, Ontario. The boat is symbolic of early Christian imagery. Also, they couldn't find a church to host them. The liturgy is alternative. A woman from the Algonquian nation sings the opening hymn. There's a lot of crowd participation.

(Soundbite of ceremony in progress)

Unidentified Woman #3: We invite the candidates for the deaconate ordination to come before the bishop.

WARNER: The ceremony is halting and giddy, like a wedding with homemade vows.

(Soundbite of ceremony)

Unidentified Woman #4: Here I am and I am ready.

WARNER: The women kneel on pillows and the bishops lay their hands on their foreheads. Then members of the audience come up. They also touch their heads. There are more prayers and songs and the women are declared.

(Soundbite of applause and cheers)

WARNER: Michele Conery from British Columbia is one of the new priests. She looks drained, hurriedly eating the rest of the bread in her Eucharist bowl.

Ms. MICHELE CONERY (New Roman Catholic Priest): People can say it's pie in the sky or they're nuts or they're just feminists. I've met a lot of other people responding in their hearts to this.

WARNER: Conery says right now they're like street workers, priests without a parish, their ministries on the fringes. But she hopes the Catholic mainstream will someday soon come to them. For NPR News, this is Gregory Warner in northern New York.

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