On May 17, Josie Petermeier took to the altar to be ordained as a Catholic priest. As ceremonies go, it was uneventful. Her small congregation gathered where it always does, in a modest Craftsman-style Methodist church below the Witch’s Hat Tower in Prospect Park, to watch Petermeier receive the sacrament of Holy Orders from a bishop who flew in from Indiana.
As Petermeier took part in a tradition said to trace an unbroken line to the original apostles, she promised to carry out the work of Christ on Earth. At that moment, she was excommunicated from the church. By order of the pope, she no longer can be buried in sacred ground. She cannot go to confession or receive the Eucharist.
Petermeier, 63, is a former nun, a mom, a theology major, and a longtime Boy Scout leader. She has clear blue-gray eyes, sleet-white hair, and a welcoming habit of waiting for those she meets to speak first, in the way of someone who has spent many years helping children. She doesn’t look like a danger to anyone. But the second she accepted the Holy Orders, she automatically received the most terrible punishment the church has—excommunication. She is from now on excluded from worship with Catholics in good standing. It’s a punishment so extreme that it was deemed too harsh for the dozens of Minnesota priests who have been credibly accused by their own archdiocese of sexually abusing children. It’s also deemed too harsh of a punishment for murderers.
“Murder is a grave sin,” explains Susan Mulheron, the chancellor of canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul & Minneapolis, “and a person can confess that and be in communion with God. But there are certain actions that are recognized by the church as causing a detriment to the communion and unity of the church. A delict is a crime that goes beyond one person’s action and affects the whole body of the church.” Which is why murderers and pedophiles are not excommunicated, but Petermeier is.
At her ordination, Petermeier was joined at the altar by two other ordained Minnesota women who are also excommunicated. Together, they are pioneering their own version of what it means to be a “good Catholic” as they lead the women-friendly, gay-friendly, everything-friendly Compassion of Christ Catholic Community in Prospect Park. Their congregation is small, 20 folks on a good day. But the influence of these women is quietly growing.
THE SCOUT LEADER
Josie Petermeier grew up in the town of Remsen, in northwestern Iowa, in the 1950s. She was the eldest child on her family’s farm, entrusted to drive the tractor, milk the cows, and lead “Granny,” the old milk cow, on a tether to mow the ditches. “I got to the point I could ride a cow,” she remembers, “but riding a cow is the lumpiest thing.”
Even today Petermeier bears a farm hand’s strength about her; she looks as if she could hurl a hay bale five yards anytime she wants. It’s no wonder she volunteered to go to a special school to learn how to repair boilers when she was a nun.
Petermeier grew up a German Catholic, and she remembers the majority of the town being so German Catholic that the parochial school was four times the size of the local public school. On Sundays at church, Petermeier would watch the altar servers and long to join them, even though she knew she never could. Outside in the Iowa summers, she’d read about the lives of the saints and dream.
“I remember laying in the grass and looking at the blue sky and thinking it was Mary’s cloak because it was the right color blue,” she recalls. Before dinner during Lent, everyone in the family would kneel and say a rosary. A favorite aunt was a Franciscan nun. Petermeier didn’t realize it at the time, but her faith was pulling her in another direction. “It was my chore to clean out the cream separator every day,” she says. “I’d put the dust cover over my shoulders to use as vestment, take out this big circular filter to use as my host, and say Mass. I did this all the time.” Only years later did Petermeier recognize this as what Catholics term “a call” or a vocation, a sign from God that you are to dedicate your life in service to the church.
At 18, Petermeier entered the convent and became a nun with the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters in Epworth, Iowa, thinking that perhaps mission work would be the right path for her to follow Christ’s directive to serve. She was a nun for nine years and attended three of her biological sisters’ weddings in her trim blue habit. Over those years, however, Petermeier began to believe that her life had gone in the wrong direction, that if she stayed with the Holy Spirit sisters she would become nothing more than a facilities manager with a specialty in boiler repair. So she left.
She went to Creighton University in Nebraska to study theology, hoping that would put her on a clearer path. There, she was offered a job in education, and while doing that, she began to wonder if all those years as a nun had left her retirement account in a dire situation, so she decided to take a class in electronics in Minnesota, where she met her husband. Together the couple raised two boys, the youngest becoming an altar server.
Through it all, she maintained involvement in the Catholic Church and eventually concluded that her truest mission must be to help boys become Boy Scouts. She took special pride in working with boys one-on-one to help them become Eagle Scouts. “For years I thought: This is my ministry. Helping boys,” she says.
As time passed, however, that familiar feeling of “Is that all there is?” began to rise in her again. Petermeier began longing to return to her path serving Christ. Her husband spotted an item about the female-led Compassion of Christ Catholic Community in a newspaper. They went to a service preached by Linda Wilcox. “I cried through most of it,” Petermeier remembers. “It was like something in me cracked open. All of what I had ever wanted as a kid—to be a priest—was right there in front of me.”
Petermeier was ordained as a deacon at Compassion a year ago, and she completed her Clinical Pastoral Education at University of Minnesota hospitals, praying with patients who request a Catholic presence. “I feel closest to the idea of anointing the sick,” she says. “Being with people, praying with them, being able to serve people and listen to their stories. If you offer your heart and your hands to God and can be an instrument to help, that is very profound. Plus, if you have that sense of calling, you have to do it or it just niggles at you: Why are you doing any less than everything you can?”
Monique Venne, a Burnsville resident for 33 years, has soft reddish hair, fine porcelain skin, and a bookish aspect. She’s a fan of the Weather Channel and her hobbies include wildflower identification. She’s been known to design a spring day around a state park outing when the native wood lilies are in bloom. She’s a Minnesota State Fair ribbon-winning beader and embroiderer, and she chairs the beadwork section of the Needlework Guild of Minnesota. Like Petermeier, she’s also been excommunicated.
Venne, 58, is retired from a career in meteorology, including a stint in the weather-watching headquarters of Northwest Airlines. And yes, it was part of her job to declare when weather reached “act of God” status, a fact she cops to with amusement.
Venne grew up in a family of French Catholics who came to the United States via Québec before she was born. She was the daughter of an Air Force pilot, and the family moved around, spending stretches of time in Massachusetts, New York, and Florida. Wherever she went, her greatest comfort was church. She was a choirgirl as a child, and after that a lifelong member of the choir. A pious child, Venne kept a Hummel nativity scene on her dresser alongside a little altar of Mary, as well as an ever-filled small font of holy water, which she replenished from the font at church. She never missed a church service. When the altar boys missed Mass, the priest would let Venne sit in the front pew—though she could never stand at the altar—and say the responses the altar boy would have said. She then clapped her hands when the bells were to be rung, as girls weren’t allowed to ring bells.
Venne says she felt the call to serve Christ repeatedly as a child. “At home I liked to play Mass. I did this all the time,” she remembers. “I’d take some bread and some grape Kool-Aid, get one of my mom’s big pressed-glass wine goblets, mash the bread down to look like a host. I wore a bathrobe as a chasuble, and I’d say a Mass to my little sister.”
Throughout her career Venne spent her evenings, when she wasn’t beading, in Bible study. And after a lifetime volunteering at churches, she eventually decided her true calling must not have been the priesthood but to write Bible-study material for other Catholics. In 1998, she enrolled in a master’s of divinity program at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton to pursue prayer writing. As Venne studied, she became more cognizant of what the Bible really did—and didn’t—say about women priests and bishops. Then, in 2005, Venne says, she received a call from Christ that she could not ignore.
It happened on Holy Thursday at St. Edward’s in Bloomington. After the evening’s service, Venne was sitting in the chapel, and the idea of women priests and bishops was weighing on her. “I said to myself, ‘I know, God, it is not men who create priests, it is you. And then I felt a pressure on my head. It felt kind of odd, and I shook my head because I thought it was just something self-invented. But the feeling wouldn’t go away, so I concentrated on it to figure out what it was, and I could feel hands on top of my head, and the words came to me: ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’ “Slowly,” Venne recalls, “the pressure went away, and I was just filled with awe.”
Melchizedek was the first priest, or at least the first mention of the concept of a priesthood in the Bible, in Hebrews 7:17. In Hebrew the word “melek” means king, while “tsedek” means righteousness. Theologians debate whether Melchizedek was an actual human being or a concept, but for Venne there was no debate.
“That was when I realized I had to live out my life as a priest,” Venne says. “I didn’t want to be excommunicated. But eventually I kept thinking: In baptism we are baptized into Christ. If we actually cannot act as Christ, why are you baptizing us? Because that’s what every Christian is called to do, by virtue of baptism. To act as Christ.”
Venne was ordained in 2011. She bakes the Eucharist they use at Compassion of Christ. It’s gluten-free and unleavened, made with honey. She says it doesn’t take long to put together; she’s done it so often she can throw a host together in less than 30 minutes. While it bakes she looks out at the wildflower garden she planted and prays.
The last of this gang of excommunicated rogues is Linda Wilcox, a 68-year-old grandmother of two whose eyes twinkle and whose cheeks dimple when she smiles.
Wilcox was such a rule-follower as a child that her brother and sister mockingly called her “The Saint” or “Linda the Good.” She grew up in Detroit before her family moved to Maplewood. She remembers being so desperate to find a sin to bring to confession that she once rifled through the garbage can in pursuit of a Campbell’s soup can her mother had prepared during Lent—and she felt victorious and guilty at the same time for pointing out the vegetable soup her mother had served at lunch contained beef broth.
“I grew up in a Father Knows Best sort of household,” Wilcox says. “Whether it was politics or religion, my father knew everything, and we listened. I wish I could do it all over again. I’d question. Everything.”
Instead, Wilcox spent her 40-year career not asking questions but answering them, in the Saint Paul Public Library. “I always told myself the library was a sort of ministry,” she says with a laugh. “Getting people what they needed, getting them the information, giving them service. Of course there was no God talk, but I thought it was a fabulous service. I loved finding answers for people. So it was ironic it took me, what, 40 years to find my own answers.”
Wilcox earned her master’s degree in theology from St. Catherine’s while she was still working, simply because she loved learning about the church. “In four years I never missed a single class. I. Just. Loved. It!” she says brightly. It was at a conference after she had graduated that Wilcox discovered the things that would have her defying two popes (so far). “I was just going to go to a Mass at the conference—I thought there would be good music. And then I saw. A woman. Behind the altar.”
When Wilcox wants to punctuate something, she makes her words into happy little staccato pops. “I had never seen a woman behind the altar. Ne-ver. Ne-ver. Never! It was like I was cracked over the head. I mean, I was stunned. Absolutely cracked open wide. From that moment I was different. I remember where I was sitting, what she had on. Afterward, and this is crazy, I saw her in her street clothes and all I could think is: She looks just like me. The idea that I had to do this took hold. It would not let me go. I really struggled with the idea of excommunication. But finally I realized: I wanted to help make a path for the women who will come after me.”
Wilcox was ordained in 2009, and she has since baptized her granddaughter. She says being an ordained priest is the greatest joy of her life. The Catholic Church calls it the worst thing a Catholic can do. “I love the church,” she says, smiling. “I cherish the rituals of faith, sometimes just the smells and bells can be very meaningful. The music. It feels like home. I feel like I’m the shunned daughter. But I’m welcome in the margins with all those other folks who are shunned, and we’re having a good time.”
The collision course between the pope and these Minnesota women started in either the 13th century or 1976, depending on how you look at it.
The 13th century was an important time in the Catholic Church. That’s when the Fourth Lateran Council created the present understanding of ordination (there’s no actual ordination recounted in the Bible) and decreed that priests, monks, bishops, and similar ordained office holders must be celibate.
In the centuries immediately following Christ’s time on Earth, women had been powerful, according to a shelf full of scholarship written about female priests and bishops during the early Christian church. History books show a striking mosaic from about AD 820, showing Theodora, the female bishop of the Basilica of St. Praxedes in Rome at the time. A third- or fourth-century Christian female priest’s grave was found on the island of Thera. Evidence of women’s presence and leadership in the early Christian church is sprinkled throughout the Bible: There’s Priscilla, who was entrusted with converting Gentiles; Lydia, who led a synagogue before becoming the first Christian convert in Europe and thereafter leading a church; Chloe, the head of a house-church; and Junia, the female apostle.
“The idea that only men were apostles, and therefore we have to follow Christ in letting men only be apostles, is a medieval idea,” Venne says. “We know Jesus’s disciples included women who traveled with him through Galilee; it’s in Luke 8. But more importantly, it was women who were faithful to Jesus after his male disciples fled once he was arrested.
“Women accompanied him to the cross, to the tomb, and were getting ready to embalm his body when they discovered the tomb was empty. In all four gospels it is said that Mary Magdalene was the one Jesus appeared to as the risen Christ. Magdalene and the other women were commissioned to tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus had risen,” Venne says. “The most important news, the core of our Christian faith, was entrusted to the women. But women can’t bring the good news? As ordained priests? It’s just crazy.”
Venne is hardly the first to argue this. Catholic women in the United States and Europe have been pursuing women’s ordination since the 1800s, when they were also pursuing women’s right to vote and campaigning against slavery and racism. A number of modern churches—Methodist, Free Will Baptist, Unitarian—were founded with the ordination of women as part of their early principles. By the 1960s, many religions, including Reform Jews, Anglicans, and Lutherans, were ordaining women.
In 1976, Pope Paul VI asked a pontifical biblical commission, made up mainly of cardinals, to look into the question: Could the Roman Catholic Church ordain women as priests? After about six months of deliberation, the committee returned with a thoroughly ambiguous report. On the one hand, it wrote, there’s tradition, and on the other hand, there’s really nothing consequential about the topic in the Bible one way or the other, leaving the decision to the present church to decide. The church issued a statement saying that women’s ordination was off the table because there would be no “‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man.”
Not everyone agreed.
Women’s ordination has never been only a women’s issue. In fact, last March in Milwaukee, Jesuit priest William Brennan posthumously released a video—seven months after he was buried in hallowed ground—affirming his support of women’s ordination. In life, he had been sanctioned for leading a liturgy in public with a woman, and the church had retaliated by stripping him of his ability to act as a priest and forbade him from attending public church services; they even forbade him to leave Milwaukee without permission from his supervisors.
Catholics who secretly support women’s ordination call themselves “in the Catacombs” or “in Catacomb” or just “Catacomb,” alluding to the Christians who hid from persecution in the tunnels beneath Rome. These supporters hide for fear of persecution. They worry about being excommunicated, fired, and stripped of pensions (if they work for the Catholic Church or an associated school) or otherwise sanctioned. Petermeier, Venne, and Wilcox estimate that there are three or four dozen active Catacomb members, including active male priests, in Minnesota right now. (I called some who declined to speak with me.)
By 2002, Bishop Romulo Antonio Braschi had had enough of the secrecy and fear. He met with seven women on a boat in the Danube River and ordained all of them as priests. These women, in turn, ordained other women, who ordained others as members of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, the same organization that Petermeier, Venne, and Wilcox are now part of. Bishop Braschi has since met the same fate as the succession of women priests he ordained—excommunication.
Today, the greatest concentrations of women who consider themselves ordained Roman Catholic priests are in California. Minnesota has the most female priests per capita in churches in Red Wing, Winona, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, and St. Paul. There are more than 70 living in the United States, most in the public, and a few in the Catacombs, having taken orders secretly.
A COMMITMENT TO CATHOLICISM
I have to confess, hanging out with ordained Catholic women priests is incredibly dull. Petermeier, Venne, and Wilcox study the Bible and work on prayers. They feed the hungry. (I packed food with them one night to send to Haiti. Nothing noteworthy happened. A lot of food was provided.) They worship and they sing. They sit with grieving parish members in support. Wilcox even sews mourning quilts from the deceased’s favorite items of clothing to give comfort to mourners while praying.
When pressed about why they didn’t leave the Catholic Church and become Anglican priests, the women have a matter-of-fact answer: Why didn’t Rosa Parks just take a cab instead of going to jail for refusing to move to the back of the bus? Why didn’t the four students leave the Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960, when surely there was a more welcoming lunch counter nearby?
“You grow where you’re planted,” Wilcox explains in her quiet Afton house, where she cares for her elderly mother. “Why should I be pushed out because of the sin of sexism?”
It was only in 1989 that the Vatican decided once and for all that, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “Harboring racist thoughts and entertaining racist attitudes is a sin.” Prior to that, decisions like refusing to ordain African Americans were accepted. In 1886, Augustus Tolton, America’s first black priest, traveled to Rome to be ordained since no American seminary would do it. The excommunicated women of Minnesota imagine that a future pope will say the same thing about sexism that present popes say about racism.
It’s also important to note that excommunication is not always binding. Joan of Arc was excommunicated, then burned at the stake, and finally made a saint. Likewise, the Carmelite nuns who supported Spain’s St. Teresa of Ávila were excommunicated, then brought back into the church, and St. Mary of the Cross MacKillop was also excommunicated before her ultimate sainthood.
PRAYERS FOR CHANGE
Anne E. Patrick is a Catholic theologian and author of Conscience and Calling: Ethical Reflections on Catholic Women’s Church Vocations; she’s the William H. Laird Professor of Religion and Liberal Arts, emerita, at Carleton College, and she has been following the movement to ordain women for more than 40 years. She says that even though the quiet devout Minnesota women priests of Compassion of Christ Catholic Community seem to be laboring in obscurity, the eyes of the world are upon them.
“It’s too early to tell whether these people are going to be thought of as St. Catherine of Siena,” she says, “or Martin Luther.” (St. Catherine of Siena being a legendary church reformer, Luther being a Catholic priest who became so disenchanted that he was excommunicated after speaking out and went on to found Lutheranism.)
According to Patrick, a 2005 survey of American Catholics revealed that 54 percent would welcome ordained married women as priests, and 61 percent thought celibate women should be ordained as priests, while 29 percent would strongly oppose a change. That’s either a recipe for change or for schism, Patrick says. “These women are practicing ‘prophetic obedience,’ the idea that they are obedient to God, not to human authority. That idea has, for a long time, held a lot of power in the church,” says Patrick. “What gives me hope is actually when Pope Francis says he refuses to talk about it.
“The writer Kathleen Hall Jamieson was once asked, ‘Does papal teaching ever change?’ She said, ‘Yes, but only after there’s a period of papal silence on a question.’ This silence now, it might be 50 years, it might be 200 years, but I think they’re very important, these women. These women are putting their lives on the line—not that they’re going to be killed, but they’re making great personal sacrifices to implement a vision of what Catholic life should be like.”
On the other hand, says Mulheron, the chancellor of canonical affairs, ordained women are not heroes. “When I talk about the constant universal and unbroken tradition of the church, handed down since Jesus Christ himself, it’s a male tradition. A public challenge of that creates confusion. The excommunication is for the effect this confusion has on the whole community.” In other words, people who go to these Minnesota women for the Eucharist are not really getting a Eucharist, the children being baptized are not really baptized, the people being married are not really married.
What fate awaits this tiny Minneapolis congregation on the hill, led by an excommunicated grandma, an excommunicated scoutmaster, and an excommunicated ribbon-winning beader? Will the church make them all saints in 500 years? We might not know in our lifetimes, but we do know one thing. Every time these excommunicated women priests get together, they pray for cardinals and bishops worldwide. They pray for Pope Francis. And they pray for Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Saint Paul & Minneapolis archdiocese and its churches that are in bankruptcy. The women pray that these people might find peace and find wisdom in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”