Ordination at CRC stirs controversy


It was an unlikely scene at Central Reform Congregation: Roman Catholic women leading a service in a Jewish synagogue to ordain two local Catholic women as priests.

After a week of controversy, and strong, public opposition from the St. Louis Archdiocese, Rose Marie Dunn Hudson, of Festus, and Elsie Hainz McGrath of St. Louis were ordained on Sunday as priests in a ceremony not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.


The women are part of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement, which opposes Roman Catholic Church law, which does not allow women to be ordained. The group has ordained 62 women worldwide, including 22 women in the United States.

About 600 people filled the sanctuary of CRC to watch the ceremony on Sunday afternoon.

CRC’s decision to allow the group to perform the ceremony at the synagogue has provoked sharp criticism from the St. Louis Archdiocese.

“This really is painful for Roman Catholics, because these folks who are attempting this ordination are certainly not following the teachings of the Catholic Church, which has made it very clear that we do not ordain women and we believe this goes back to the very will of Jesus,” said Father Vincent Heier, a Roman Catholic priest, and director of the Office of Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Affairs for the St. Louis Archdiocese.

“Getting involved in the internal affairs of another community is not appropriate, any more than we would host at one of our churches some group that would be antithetic to the Jewish community,” he said. “To provide a place for them to have this alleged ordination is not being very respectful to the Catholic community.”

At the ordination ceremony on Sunday, Patricia Fresen, who was ordained as a bishop in 2005, thanked Rabbi Susan Talve and Central Reform Congregation for allowing the ceremony to take place.

“What a day, what an occasion, what a place, what a rabbi,” Fresen said. “To be in a Jewish synagogue is so wonderful. We really feel that Jesus must be feeling right at home here today,” she said.

“We have been welcomed into this sacred space and we are forming an inclusive community of God’s people standing together against patriarchal oppression,” Fresen said.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) released a statement that CRC’s decision to host the ceremony does not represent the greater Jewish community.

“The JCRC regrets any pain inuring from Central Reform Congregation’s association with the ordination event to any of our many friends in the Roman Catholic community of St. Louis, with whom we have worked closely over the years,” the statement said.

“It is our hope that an isolated act on the part of a single congregation will not be allowed to disrupt the long tradition of continued dialogue and mutual respect between our Jewish and Roman Catholic communities,” it continued.

Rabbi Mark Fasman, of Shaare Zedek, president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, said the official position of SLRA was to “affirm the position stated in the JCRC paper, adding only that we understand this to be an isolated incident by one congregation.”

However, Fasman said that in his personal opinion, and not as a representative of the SLRA, he felt, “it was inappropriate for a Jewish institution to host any kind of a event which is sacred to a particular religious tradition other than Judaism.”

“Any congregation, and any rabbi, can do whatever they want, which is basically taken for granted by the Jewish community. The question is how it is perceived by the non-Jewish world,” he said.

“The ordination of women is a significant issue for the Catholic world, but it’s a Catholic issue,” he said.

For CRC’s Rabbi Talve, the synagogue’s decision to host the ceremony was based on its values of providing a sukkat shalom, or shelter of peace to the women seeking a religious venue.

“We were guided by our core values that said the value of hospitality and providing a sacred space for those looking for it was the right thing for us to do,” Talve said, noting that CRC’s board unanimously approved the decision.

Although Rabbi Talve did not take part in the ceremony, she extended a warm welcome to the audience at the opening of the event, and said it brought to mind the hospitality Abraham and Sarah showed to the three strangers they welcomed into their tent, as told in the Book of Genesis.

At the ordination ceremony, Fresen acknowledged the controversy and media attention, and said that along with criticism, she has heard praise.

“We all know that there has been quite a lot of opposition,” Fresen said. “But there has been far, far more support and acclamations, and wishing us well, and enthusiasm.”

McGrath, one of the women who was ordained, said in an interview that she and Hudson came to CRC after looking at other religious institutions.

“We obviously couldn’t have it happen in our own Catholic church anywhere,” she said. “But we wanted to have a religious environment to have the ordination in. We were welcome everywhere we went, but we didn’t feel like it was the right place,” said McGrath, who holds a master’s degree in theology from Aquinas Institute.

“A friend suggested that we might want to talk to Rabbi Susan Talve and we thought, ‘why don’t we just go by there?'”

“We didn’t call her, or make an appointment or anything. We walked in and we immediately felt this was the right place,” she said. “Rabbi Talve was incredibly gracious and welcoming. It was all very providential. It was just really an act of God,” McGrath said.

McGrath said she views the ordination ceremony as a valid civil protest of what she views as an unjust church doctrine.

“It is canonical disobedience in the same way that we do civil disobedience to unjust laws,” McGrath said. McGrath said she and others in the Womenpriests movement believe that although Roman Catholic Church law does not allow women to be ordained, the ordinations are legitimate under Catholic teachings of apostolic succession.

Fresen said she was ordained a bishop by three male bishops in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church, although the identities of the bishops will not be released until after their deaths.

“The validity of ordination in the Catholic Church is linked presumably to the time of the apostles of Jesus, so if you are ordained by someone who has been ordained within that apostolic order, it makes the ordination valid,” McGrath said.

“So even though we’re breaking one law, we are validly arguing our standing as Roman Catholic priests,” she said.

Father Heier said that the Womenpriests Movement distorts church doctrine. “The women involved and the group they represent certainly do not follow the official teachings of the Catholic Church, but they like to claim they are Catholic,” Heier said. “And in that sense they misrepresent us and our teachings.”

“The Church has always maintained that Jesus only chose men to be his twelve apostles, and its from them that we see the origins of the Catholic priesthood. We do not feel that we can change the practice of Jesus,” he said.

Hudson and McGrath received letters from St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke before the ceremony, warning that the women would be excommunicated if they go through with the ordination. In a column posted on the St. Louis Archdiocese Web site, Archbishop Burke wrote, “The attempted ordination is a violation of what is most sacred to us in the Church, one of the sacraments. It imperils the eternal salvation of the women seeking the attempted ordination…What is more the hosting of the attempted ordination by the Central Reform Congregation constitutes a grave violation of the mutual respect which should mark the relationship between the Jewish faith and the Roman Catholic faith.”

Father Vincent Heier said that while the Archdiocese would no longer partner with CRC in interfaith activities, he is still committed to continuing the interfaith work he has done over the years.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the JCRC, said that while the ordination ceremony at CRC made the headlines, the Jewish and Catholic communities have still been working together in interfaith efforts. She pointed to the fact that the same week as the ordination, the Jewish and Catholic communities worked together to hold two major programs for the community: a hunger awareness event on Nov. 5 co-sponsored by JCRC, Catholic Charities, and the Islamic Foundation, and a lecture on Nov. 11 sponsored by the JCRC and the Aquinas Institute at Saint Louis University.

“I think this signifies the ongoing collaboration and cooperation that we have had with the Catholic community and that we look forward to continuing,” Abramson-Goldstein said.

As for the newly ordained women priests, McGrath and Hudson, they are preparing for their planned weekly services, each Saturday afternoon beginning Dec. 1, at First Unitarian Church, across the street from CRC. McGrath said the women will co-pastor services in their “inclusive faith community,” at the newly established Th ér èse of Divine Peace. As priests, McGrath said, the women will now be able to hold Eucharistic worship services, which was one of the main reasons they wanted to be able to become priests.

“We could not celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist until we were ordained as priests,” she said. “Now we will be able to provide that for the people who just don’t feel all that welcome in their own church anymore.”