Friends, it only seems appropriate on the occasion of this celebration of 10 years of ministry that we take a bit of a trip down memory lane, because this truly is a significant milestone that we, as a Vatican II parish, headed by a woman priest, a real “no-no” in the Catholic church and in the backyard of the bishop, would have begun and persisted and grown over these 10 years. Reminds me of the words said of Congresswoman Elizabeth Warren by Mitch McConnell, “She was warned, given an explanation and yet persisted!”
But you see, it was never totally about me, but about all of us who listened to the Spirit and heard in our hearts the call to be all that we could be as a parish. Many of us who first gathered at the Holzinger Lodge in Winona, one fall evening in 2007, after my diaconal ordination, to discuss the possibility of becoming a parish, were looking for more than we were finding in our present parishes—we wanted everyone to be welcome at the table, regardless of life-style choices or relationship changes; we wanted the calls of women as well as men to be accepted; we wanted to praise a God who is bigger and more inclusive than what we were being told in our churches. Very simply, we were dreaming of a parish that would be fruitful to the changes of Vatican II.
For me and for Robert, the process started more than 25 years ago as it became more and more difficult for us to attend Masses that were designed to appeal more to men—God came in one form—male, the language was male in form for God and for people and there was no one at the altar who looked like me.
Even though, as a chaplain at the hospital, nursing home and in hospice care, I did many of the ministries that were priest-like, bringing both the Eucharist (big E) and little “e” and if you are wondering, the little “e” is the love of God that we all bring made up of all the small kindnesses, the love of each day. In listening to people’s stories that were often confession-like in nature; I unofficially gave God’s forgiveness and mercy. I was there for the joy of live births and for the sadness of babies whose lives were cut short, I was there during the stressful times of physical illness and depression and at the deaths of loved ones after full and good lives spent. Priestly ministry? I would say “yes,” but my Church said, “No.”
My Church was willing to baptize and confirm me, but not ordain me—they said God did not want it because women couldn’t image Christ. Somehow, as Sr. Joan Chittister says, and I’ll paraphrase, God who is all powerful, all knowing and all wonderful—really, is totally inept when it comes to women! But, I’m getting ahead of my story.
We, Robert and I, looked for a time, for what we couldn’t find in the Catholic church, in other denominational churches, often finding them lacking as well—we often found God in those years in the “Cathedral of the Great Outdoors.”
By this time, our children, Isaac and Eryn were off to college, so our questioning wasn’t, as we say, “in their faces” all the time. This is something I often worried about—if our questioning drove them from the Church we had raised them in. But, upon checking with them; they were both able to say that they had many of the same questions, so understood. And, they are both here today, along with their families!
So, when it came down to it, in the end, Robert and I realized that we were really “Catholic” at heart and even though some other churches were more welcoming, the Catholic church was the only Church we really wanted to call our own.
So one day, the now quite well-known story, to some of you, of the Spirit interjecting herself into a conversation that Robert and I were having, happened. To my statement, “The only way we will ever find a church that is meaningful to us would be if we created one, ourselves, he responded in a way that was very unusual, for him. It is important for you to know that he is usually the one to get me to think twice about something this important, but he simply responded, “Yes, I think you are right!” All I could say was, “Really?!”
From then on, my path was clear. We came to see that my original statement about forming a church that we would find meaningful was the work of the Spirit and she has been present ever since.
Our daughter Eryn remembers the first meeting in the fall of 2007 at Holzinger Lodge—we were to meet at 7P.M. and as she waited on the porch for the people to arrive, hoping that of the 24 invitations sent out, someone would come, at five minutes to 7, a noticeable wind blew through (think Spirit) and a line of cars followed!
We had about a dozen people that night dreaming a grander church and some are still with us. Of all the ways we tried to advertise, the best was always, word of mouth. We had more meetings and more, different people came. On May 4, 2008, at Winona State University in Kryzsko Commons, I was ordained as Winona Diocese’s first Catholic woman priest!—a marvelous thing really, when you think about it, and again, not for me, but for our community! Because the Universal Catholic church will not say, “Yes” to the Spirit, the people are moving ahead and saying, “Yes,” this is what we want—please join us when you can!”
I always look to any situation of import and if there is peace and general good around it, (the gifts of the Spirit), I know she is present. At my ordination, none of my brother priests from around the diocese, who was invited, attended for fear of repercussions, but my Protestant sisters and brothers in ministry came to give affirmation that my call was truly a call to ministry for the People of God.
One of those, Pastor John Carrier, was present that day. After the ordination ceremony , he came up to me and asked if we had a place to do liturgy and when I said, “No,” he offered the Lutheran Campus Center, here, rent-free. His only stipulation was that we support Mugby Junction for our fellowship needs, who of course share this building. No problem then John, nor now as the three-some, AAO, LCC and Mugby have developed a wonderful symbiotic relationship over the years.
Over these 10 years, this ministry has grown to some 60 strong who actually come to services when they can, usually about 20 a week. We always said that if everyone came at the same time, we would be at critical mass, no pun, in this space, which I think we truly are at today! In addition to those who physically attend, my weekly homilies go out to many, many more—I don’t know the circulation rate as people frequently tell me that they share these words with countless others.
And if what I write each week stirs, comforts, or challenges you in heart, mind and soul, I credit the Spirit with that too. I can’t tell you the number of times that I have marveled at what comes out of my and her work in a week’s time.
Speaking of the Spirit, I wanted to make mention of why I speak of the Spirit of God with the feminine pronoun, “she.” This isn’t just a “cutesy” way to interject some of the feminine into an otherwise male God, but it is in fact, from Scripture. The Old or First Testament speaks of the Spirit of God in the Aramaic in feminine terms, “ruach” and the wisdom of God is named, Sophia. So, if it is good enough for the Bible, I think we should speak this way too! As Sandra Schneiders, scripture scholar says well, “God is [truly] more than two men and a bird.”
The Spirit also makes herself present in our weekly homilies when I open them up to your comments—as I always tell you, She uses you as well as me in our hearing of the Word.
So, my friends, these 10 years have been about the work of God, for the People of God. This community is most generous, financially and materially, in time and in talent. Because we are blessed with this space, rent-free, we are able to gift back to our city, country and world approximately 75% and sometimes more of what is given in the collection basket—our board truly enjoys this aspect of their job—giving our money away and of course the ministries of the Lutheran Campus Center are frequent recipients of the generosity of this parish. There will be a book on the table later showing some of the many other places that have benefitted as well.
And then there is the outreach in time and talent to the community through Home Delivered Meals, Catholic Worker monthly meals, Winona Volunteer Services Food Shelf and soon through the Winona Sanctuary Program as All Are One will be serving as a Sanctuary Support Community to the eventual Sanctuary Church for which we all pray can happen soon.
So, as we look back and we look forward in faith, our Scriptures today have much for us to reflect on. The reading from Genesis speaks about the fact that the natural human reaction to wrongdoing is fear. Fear keeps us from not doing many things that love would otherwise call us to do. Like this parish for instance—like me going against the bishop and getting ordained. I did, by the way, ask him to ordain me, but he refused! The bishop used fear tactics at the time to dissuade me—my certification as a Catholic chaplain for which he gave his episcopal endorsement required for lay people seeking certification within the National Association of Catholic Chaplains. He also threatened me with excommunication from the Church I love, if I did not recant.
Paul tells the Corinthians and us today that “this life is momentary, that the next is everlasting, so do not lose heart at the troubles here.”
Jesus tells us today, as recorded by Mark that anyone who does the will of God is his sister, brother and mother. It is my hope that in Jesus’ Spirit we are about God’s will and I believe that by the fruits of this parish, as delineated earlier, this is so.
When Jesus walked the earth, those who opposed him said his works came from the devil—we might ask as he did, why would you assume that when someone comes in strength and goodness that it has to be of the devil? The bishop was concerned that I would lead people astray—not that I might do any good!
And the good done over these 10 years has not been without much help, love and support from so many. I wanted to make mention of the former editor of the Winona Daily News, Darryl Ehrlick, who so generously and graciously introduced me and my journey to the people of Winona through several wonderful articles back in 2008. To this beautiful parish of people that I am so privileged to serve, many who have been here for the long haul, witnessing to the goodness of a parish that welcomes all to the table. I think especially of Michael Maher, who has given so much to this parish and who was hospitalized this week with pneumonia and is with us in spirit today. To my family, my great kids, Isaac and Eryn and their spouses, Lauren and Adam and our grandson, Elliot who says so much to me about the playfulness of our God. To my sisters by marriage, Ann, Joan and Theresa, here with us today—Theresa’s husband, Don and others who couldn’t be with us except in spirit. And finally, to my husband Robert, who has always had my back and given me all the love and support one needs to do such an audacious thing as pursue ordination in a Church that says, “No!”
So, my friends, “When our earthly tent is folded up,” Paul tells us today, “The grace that is reaching more and more people,” and it seems this is true of All Are One Roman Catholic church, may [that grace] cause thanksgiving to overflow.” Amen? Amen!