Religious leaders of a relatively unknown branch of Catholicism plan to ordain a transgender man to the priesthood on Saturday in Minneapolis.

One of only a half-dozen or so transgender clergy members in Minnesota, Shannon T.L. Kearns will set about starting the state's first North American Old Catholic Church congregation following his ordination at Plymouth Congregational Church.

Established in 2007, the North American Old Catholic Church is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, though Kearns says he hopes to attract disenchanted Roman Catholics to his new, more liberal-leaning Minneapolis congregation.

"Church should be a place that welcomes all people and should be about working for justice in the world," Kearns said during a recent interview. "That's just a really important message to get out."

The North American Old Catholic Church describes itself as "tradition rich with progressive Catholic values." It ordains women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as well as married and divorced people, according to its website. It also touts "social justice" concerns such as gay rights, women's rights and being good stewards of the environment.

The group grew out of the Old Catholic Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church after the First Vatican Council in the late 1800s approved the idea of papal infallibility (the pope is not wrong when he speaks about doctrine).

Kearns estimates there are close to 10,000 North American Old Catholic Church followers in some 23 states. He says the nearest congregation to Minnesota is in Utah. The congregation Kearns plans to establish in Minneapolis will be called House of the Transfiguration, and initially he hopes to share space with an existing church.

Bishop Benjamin Evans of the diocese of New Jersey will preside at Kearns' ordination on Saturday. In response to the announcement of the ordination, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis released a statement distancing itself from the North American Old Catholic Church:

"This organization is neither affiliated nor in communion with the Catholic Church. Their activities are not supported by this archdiocese, the Catholic Church, or any entity or organization affiliated with this archdiocese or the Catholic Church."

'Loosening' ideas of gender

Heather White, a religion professor at the New College of Florida who has written extensively about gay and transgender issues, estimates there are fewer than 100 transgender clergy in the United States. For the past decade or so, only a handful of faith groups -- mostly mainline Protestant denominations -- have allowed openly transgender people to serve as clergy, she says.

"With the newness of having clergy who are transgender, [for Minnesota] to be on the cusp of this developing trend is exciting," White said. "Just as feminists challenge the idea that God could only be male ... having a person who has had experience across the gender divide, that transgender experience ... will help us both to loosen our fixed idea that God is only masculine by maybe loosening our fixed idea that gender only comes in two forms."

Originally from Pennsylvania, Kearns, 32, says he grew up in a "fundamentalist evangelical church" and "always felt called to start a new church -- mostly out of my experiences of not feeling welcome in the churches I'd grown up in. I ... always felt like, 'I want to serve here, but you don't want me.'"

While earning a master of divinity degree from Union Theological Seminary in New York, Kearns transitioned from female to male. He moved to Minnesota three years ago and works on staff at Plymouth as a youth-activities and community-ministries coordinator.

"This [creating a new congregation] is really coming out of that experience and wanting to create a space that really values ritual and tradition," he said. "It's really exciting to be ordained by this body. My trans status hasn't been an issue. It's something they see as a benefit and a blessing."

Rose French • 612-673-4352