Dressed in a priestly white robe and green stole, Monique Venne lifted communion bread before an altar -- defying centuries of Catholic Church law.
Despite promises of excommunication from the Vatican, she and six other women in Minnesota say they are legitimate, ordained Catholic priests, fit to celebrate the mass. They trace their status through a line of ordained women bishops back to anonymous male bishops in Europe.
"We love the church, but we see this great wrong," said Venne, 54, who cofounded Compassion of Christ Church, a Minneapolis congregation that just celebrated its first anniversary. "Not allowing women to be at the altar is a denigration of their dignity. We want the church to be the best it can be. If one leaves, one cannot effect change. So we're pushing boundaries."
Minnesota has emerged as a hotbed for the growing movement to ordain women as priests, with the highest per-capita number of female Catholic priests in the nation, according to the organization Roman Catholic Womenpriests. Women priests are working in the Twin Cities, Red Wing, Winona, Clear Lake and soon St. Cloud. The group claims about 70 women priests in the United States and more than 100 worldwide.
Several Protestant denominations have allowed women to be ordained ministers for decades. But the Catholic Church views an all-male priesthood as unchangeable, "based on the example of Jesus, who, even though he had revered relationships with women who were his disciples, chose only men to be his apostles," said Dennis McGrath, spokesman for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
"Women who claim to have been ordained Catholic priests in fact have no relationship to the Catholic Church because their ordination is not valid," he said.
Dozens of congregations
An increasing number of Catholics disagree with the church on this. In a poll last year by the New York Times and CBS, 59 percent of U.S. Catholics favored letting women become priests, with 33 percent opposed.
That's encouraging news for Roman Catholic Womenpriests, founded nearly nine years ago in Europe. It began after seven women were ordained aboard a ship on the Danube River by three male bishops. The group claims their ordinations are valid because they conform within the bounds of "apostolic succession."
"I do believe we are connecting through the original church, which started with the apostles," said Regina Nicolosi, 69, of Red Wing, who became bishop for Womenpriests' Midwest region in 2009.
Dozens of U.S. congregations are being led by women priests, a movement many Catholics view as a means to solving the church's problem of declining numbers of male priests. Roman Catholic Womenpriests is the first group to claim "apostolic succession," said Marian Ronan, associate professor at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.
The church sees that as a threat to its authority, Ronan said.
The Vatican issued a pronouncement in 2008 that women who sought ordination and bishops who ordained them would be excommunicated. Last year, the Vatican also labeled female ordination a delictum gravius, or grave crime.
Venne says women who work on church staffs also face the likelihood of getting fired for becoming priests. Male priests who support them can't do so publicly because they risk their retirement pensions if they are excommunicated.
Proponents of female ordination argue, however, the New Testament and early Christian art show women as priests and in other leadership roles.
'I feel like it's a nationality'
Asked why they insist on remaining Catholic when they could be welcomed as ministers in other denominations, the women say, in so many words, it's their religion, too.
"I'm as much Catholic, -- I feel like it's a nationality, -- as I am English, German and Polish," said Linda Wilcox, 64, who felt called to become a priest after working in the St. Paul library system for nearly 35 years. She is one of four women priests at Compassion of Christ.
Women priests in Minnesota come from a variety of backgrounds: chaplain, librarian, even meteorologist. A significant number are married and have children, another forbidden activity by the church, which calls for its priests to be celibate.
Like many women who've joined the ranks of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, Nicolosi has a master's degree in theology.
Venne and other women at Compassion of Christ recall "playing mass" when they were children and pretending to be priests. As young girls, they felt rejected that they could not be altar servers, let alone priests.
"At the core of my being I knew that couldn't be," said Judith McKloskey, 65, of Eden Prairie. "Jesus included everybody." For years at her parish church, Pax Christi, she served as a lay preacher and ran a national association for lay ministry. She was ordained in 2007.
Venne, of Burnsville, the former meteorologist, was in a Bible study group with McKloskey and decided to pursue the priesthood after participating in her ordination. Venne was ordained in June.
"I felt as though I was fulfilling what God wanted me to do," she said. "It was something I'd been called to since I was in fourth grade and because the way the Catholic Church was structured, I wasn't able to recognize it until years later. I couldn't even be an altar server in those days."
Nicolosi was helping her husband train to become a deacon in 1980 when she realized she "had a call, too. I experienced the injustice of doing the entire training and being totally qualified but not being able to be ordained."
Answer to priest shortage?
Compassion of Christ is a small congregation, with only about 15 to 20 people attending regularly. One is Pauline Cahalan, 66, a lifelong Catholic who started going a year ago.
"Basically there's just something missing with the fact that there's this philosophy or rules that say the Holy Spirit only inspires men to be priests," Cahalan said. "And that if a woman gets that calling ... they're supposed to ignore it and deny it. That just doesn't make sense to me.
"We have such a shortage of priests. To me this is one of the answers ... that we would recognize the vocations when the Holy Spirit calls women and let them become priests."
In Minnesota, the movement is expanding. One of the four priests leading Compassion of Christ, Mary Smith, will leave at the end of the year to become the full-time pastor at a new congregation in St. Cloud.
The four women say a significant reason why they buck Catholic Church convention is because they were inspired by seeing other women celebrating mass. Now they're paying it forward.
"I hope the women priests can help fire the imagination of young women in the church today, that this is a possibility," Wilcox said. "We are equal."
Rose French • 612-673-4352