Acting on a deep call to a different ministry

If there’s one thing Mary Bergan Blanchard wants to make clear, it’s this: she is definitely not a radical.

“I’m too old to be a radical,” she said, laughing. “I’m too practical.”

The thing is, most people would probably consider the 82-year-old Albuquerque retiree to be rather radical. Take, for example, the fact that in the 1970s, when a federal mandate to desegregate the city’s public schools set Boston ablaze with racial violence, Blanchard moved there from New York specifically to teach in the public school system. Or consider that in May, the former Sister of Mercy was ordained by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests in direct opposition to Catholic canon law, which forbids the ordination of women.

But if you think any of that is radical, Blanchard says you would be wrong. She moved to Boston because she was deeply disturbed by the country’s racial issues; she was a teacher and she wanted to do something about it. Practical. She became a woman priest because women are underrepresented in the world’s religions, and, because she was recently retired, she was looking for a new calling. Also practical.

In fact, for Blanchard, the decision to become a priest was so pragmatic that – despite the fact that ordination meant almost certain excommunication – she describes the decision as having fallen into her lap. There was no dramatic epiphany, no vision from heaven. “It just happened,” she said.

Blanchard may not consider herself a radical, but she is at least an anomaly in this regard, because for many other women priests, the decision for ordination was anything but pragmatic. Rather, they say they were acting upon a deep, existential call to priestly ministry they felt as young women growing up in the ’50 and ‘60s – back when the only substantive ministry work open to Catholic women required putting on a habit.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many women entered religious life with an unrequited or latent desire for priestly ministry. But if the current number of womenpriests who used to be nuns is any indication, it was more than a few. There’s no hard data on the issue, but insiders at the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, a wing of the international Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement that has been ordaining women and married men since 2002, estimate – based on conversations and observations – that more than half of the women they’ve ordained were once Catholic sisters.

Nancy Meyer says she had a clear call to the priesthood in the sixth grade; it was during Mass, and three things came to her: that she was to be a priest, that she was to work in a parish and that she was to be in the convent.

“I couldn't do the first one,” she said. “I couldn't do the second one because nobody worked in the parish except the priest in the '50s, so it was clear that I needed to go to the convent.”

In 1965, Meyer joined a Franciscan community and stayed for 31 years. She left in 1996, under the guidance of her spiritual director, after a series of recurring dreams about leaving the community. She continued her work as a pastoral associate in her parish, but she felt parishoners reaffirming her childhood call to the priesthood, a call she hadn’t exactly advertised.

“The older women in the parish, they would say to me, ‘Oh, Nancy! I don’t understand why they don’t ordain you!’ Out of nowhere,” she said. And eventually, in 2010, she was ordained – as a Roman Catholic Womanpriest, submitting, as she puts it, to an unsolicited grace that was given to her. She currently pastors a small house church in Indianapolis, and in June, she was ordained bishop of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests’ Midwest region.

Like so many nuns-turned-priest, Meyer left her religious community on good terms and keeps in touch. She doesn’t disparage her time as a woman religious, regarding it, rather, as a God-given grace – that is, the “crucible” in which she was nurtured and formed for her current ministry.

“The difference for me is that the call to priesthood is my first calling. That is what I have been called to deeply,” she said. “I think my whole life has been a preparation for this moment."

This idea that the convents of the late 20th century were an ideal training ground for female priests is popular in some corners of the women’s ordination movement. First, Blanchard – who left her order in 1969 after almost 20 years – points out, any woman willing to enter into religious life is probably already hardwired for the life of service required of a priest. Second, she said, Catholic sisters have already been doing the kind of work priests do.

“They run parishes, and they give Communion services,” Blanchard said before describing a missionary nun she knows in Alaska. People, she said, often stop this sister on the street so she can hear their confession. “She’d say to them, ‘I can’t do that!’ but they didn’t care. She was all they had. The nuns are doing wonderful work at the moment.”

So why leave? If nuns have already assumed some pastoral duties usually associated with ordained priests, and if there were no hard feelings between would-be priests and their communities, what was the point in leaving?

The answer varies in the specifics, but for most of the women, the overarching theme is the same: after the Second Vatican Council, they no longer saw religious life as congruent with their vision of spiritual fulfillment. In the ’70s and ‘80s – when most of these women left their orders – they say they had a sense that a new era of opportunity was dawning for Catholic women.

It would still be decades before any of them became priests; women’s ordination, even in a rogue iteration, was still a ways away, and almost all of them would need a nudge from family and friends. For example, Blanchard, who left the Sisters of Mercy in 1969 after almost 20 years, wasn’t ordained until last year – at the age of 82 – after encouragement from a former student. Blanchard spent the years between the convent and the priesthood as a teacher, a school psychologist and a parish counselor. She also got married and raised six children.

Many of the women left their sister communities specifically to get married, shedding what they considered to be the church’s incomplete understanding of human relationships. Maria Thornton McClain became a Sister of Mercy in 1958 because she knew as a teenager that she wanted to devote her life to the Eucharist – and being a nun, she understood, was the only way that a woman could do that. When McClain left the order in 1974, she had not yet met her husband, but she knew she wanted to explore the possibility of romantic love and married life.

“I guess I had evolved in thinking that loving relationships are where I experience God, as well as the Eucharist,” she said.

As a nun, McClain had been a teacher, and she continued teaching in Catholic schools in her hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., until she moved to Indianapolis to take a job as a religious education director. In 1981 McClain did get married, and in 2012 she was ordained a Roman Catholic Womanpriest. She currently pastors a small congregation in Indianapolis and says being able to love both her husband and the Eucharist was always her true calling.

Some of the would-be priests GSR interviewed, like Linda Spear, truly believed the Vatican’s stamp of approval for women’s ordination was eminent. Spear, a former sister of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, left the order in 1966 after her temporary vows expired; religious life, she had discovered, was not for her. However, after Vatican II, Spear remembers bishops telling women to hone up on their theological studies in preparation for ordination – and she remembers knowing that ordination, unlike religious life, was for her. So she racked up advanced degrees in medieval studies, French and pastoral theology.

“But it came to naught, as you know,” she said. “I was all dressed up with no place to go.”

But in 2010, Spear was ordained a Roman Catholic Womanpriest, and today she presides over a Wednesday morning Mass in a Canadian ski resort town. She declined to say where exactly, in order to protect the local diocesan clergy with whom she is on friendly terms – a constant refrain heard when talking to nuns-turned-priests.

Being an ordained woman is an offense punishable by excommunication, but so is participating in a woman’s ordination. In 2007, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a decree stating that any woman who “attempts to receive a sacred order” as well as any person attempting to confer upon her a sacred order would, “incur an excommunication latae sententiae [automatically] reserved to the Apostolic See.”

And while most of the former women religious have made peace with their punishment (“I know my relationship is with God, and in no way can I be excommunicated from God,” said Helen Moorman Umphrey, a former Sister of the Precious Blood who was ordained last year.), they are careful not to implicate others. That includes members of their former religious communities who support their ordination, albeit secretly, and also the parish churches some of them still attend when not presiding over their own monthly or semimonthly Masses.

But not all female priests have been able to maintain a relationship with their parish church. Martha Sherman, a former School Sister of Notre Dame, said when she was ordained a deacon in 2010 and a Roman Catholic Womanpriest in 2013, the bishop of the Sioux Falls Diocese had a letter detailing her excommunication read at every church in Salem, S.D., where she and her wife run a 10-acre RV campground ministry.

Sherman, who celebrates a Sunday Mass for her campers, never imagined that one day she would be a priest. In fact, the story of how Sherman tried to explain to her aunts, the family matriarchs, that she wanted to be a nun was a source of endless amusement to both Sherman and the other postulants when she entered the convent in 1985

“They said, ‘We love and support you, Martha, but don’t you think you’d make a better priest?’” Sherman said. “And this was in the ‘80s!” And although the idea seemed ludicrous at the time, she says she now knows her aunts were right – that the reason she felt so ill at ease in the convent was because she was always meant to be a priest.

“The call to become a religious felt safe and secure,” she said. “I knew that this band of women would always be there for me, and I would always be there for them – that I would always have a ministry, I would always be taken care of. I would be accepted, I would be in.” And yet, as soon as she made her first vows, she immediately felt an absence of peace in her heart

She left shortly thereafter.

The call to the priesthood has been different. “Even when I've received letters of excommunication from the bishop,” Sherman said, “yeah, it hurt. But I found a peace with myself and my God – that I was on the right path, that I was on a path of love and justice and equality, that I was pushing for the Gospel to be lived by our church.”

Like Sherman, Umphrey says she has gotten an icy reception from her local parish ever since her ordination. She is still registered with the parish, but no longer attends Mass because she has been refused the Eucharist. Similarly, Judith Beaumont, a former Benedictine sister, says she has been shunned by the Catholic community in Fort Meyers, Fla., where she currently resides and pastors a mixed-income house church.

This quiet acquiescence may seem strange coming from a woman who openly and knowingly defies the Vatican on a weekly basis, but if there’s another hallmark of this particular group of women, it’s this: yes, they are trying to ignite a revolution, but their revolution is not about violent transformation. It’s about what they see as a re-recognition of the God-given, natural way of things.

Actually, in many ways, these women are traditionalists. For example, unlike some of the current members of the religious communities they left, as priests, they affirm the idea of the church’s clerical hierarchy. Furthermore, they celebrate traditional Masses – even if they do edit readings and hymns to include gender-inclusive language. The way they describe it, they’re just cradle Catholics trying to change the church from the inside out.

“So many other denominations have worked through the issues related to ordaining women, and they especially are thrilled that we are moving forward, not waiting for permission from the dudes to be ordained,” said Rosemarie Smead, a former Carmelite sister and a current priest  in the Association of Roman Catholic Woman Priests in Bedford, Ky.

Mary Theresa Streck, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet for 19 years and now ordained by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, puts it succinctly: “I became a priest to continue a life of service as part of an intentional Roman Catholic community that was both inclusive and equal.” Streck, who left the convent in 1984 to get married, intrinsically believes that God never intended for either her gender or her marital status to bar her from priestly ministry.

Smead agrees. “It does not take male parts to consecrate or ‘magic fingers,’” she said. “It takes heart, brains, dedication and love – the love that Jesus gives to us all and we can all respond to.”

But until the church is ready to see things that way, these women say they are ready and willing to quietly and steadily – much like the religious communities they left decades ago – continue pushing for change, no matter what.

“You can't worry about the manufactured, legislated laws of the church,” said Sherman. “You have to follow your own well-formed conscience. You have to trust that your conscience is well-formed, and that it ultimately is inconsequential what the institutional church shoots back at you.”

[Dawn Cherie Araujo is a staff writer for Global Sisters Report.]