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Thursday, July 17, 2014 12:01 am

Woman priest defies Catholic diocese

Excommunication a small price to live her faith

Mary Keldermans (left) of Springfield leads Holy Family Inclusive Catholic Community, while John Freml (right), also of Springfield, serves as the church’s spokesman.


By most measures, Mary Keldermans of Springfield is a good Catholic.

She was raised in the church, volunteered and for many years helped convert people to Catholicism. She and her husband, Steve Keldermans, even sent all of their six kids – now all grown and living in Springfield – to Catholic school.

But to Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, head of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, Keldermans is a heretic. In May, Keldermans became ordained as a Roman Catholic woman priest by a group not sanctioned by the Catholic Church. The move put her at odds with the church’s Code of Canon Law and earned her an excommunication from Paprocki, but she doesn’t mind.

“Now I’m free to do what’s in my heart, and I don’t have to parrot the company line,” Keldermans said.

Keldermans leads Holy Family Inclusive Catholic Community, which meets irregularly at the Congregational United Church of Christ of Jacksonville. Paprocki called Keldermans’ congregation a “schismatic group,” but she denies any intent to divide or subvert the Catholic Church.

“We feel we’re still within the community, no matter what they say,” Keldermans said. “When we celebrate Mass, it’s the same songs, the same prayers, the same everything. There’s no separation.”

Keldermans’ desire to become a priest grew out of her volunteer work with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, a program to help adults convert to Catholicism. She started volunteering for the program in 1990 at St. Aloysius Church in Springfield and soon became the program coordinator. She later did the same job for six years at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Springfield.

By 2009, however, she had grown disillusioned with certain teachings of the church and stopped attending Mass. Specifically, she couldn’t abide the Catholic Church’s stances on who can and can’t take communion, as well as the church’s policy toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

“Jesus’ gift had no strings attached to it, so I just don’t understand why there were strings attached (in the church),” Keldermans said. “It’s not the Catholic gift to give. It’s everyone’s.”

Keldermans decided to become a woman priest after one of her “sheroes,” prominent Catholic author and activist Sister Joan Chittister, visited Springfield to speak at a Catholic conference in 2010. Chittister has not been ordained as a woman priest, but she advocates for the ordination of women.

“I wondered, ‘Is this a big pat on the back from God, that I get to meet my shero finally?” Keldermans said. “Or is God asking me to do more, saying, ‘You get to meet her, but what’s she doing, and can you do the same?’ The more I listened to her, the more I thought, ‘What can I do?’ ”

Keldermans’ decision was helped along by her older brother, who called a group of Catholic woman priests in St. Louis and asked them to call her. She applied to Roman Catholic Womenpriests-USA, Inc., the organization that ordains women priests in the U.S., as a “catacomb candidate,” using a fake name during her studies in order to prevent her actions from overshadowing her sons’ upcoming weddings. Keldermans paid for her own materials and courses, which include 10 research papers on various aspects of priesthood.

Keldermans says there are now 180 women who call themselves Roman Catholic priests in the world, with the majority of them living in the U.S. Although some accounts of women priests in history exist, the modern woman priest movement began in Germany in 2002, when seven women were ordained on a ship in the Danube River. The ceremony was performed by two Roman Catholic priests, one of whom has since been excommunicated and the other whose identity has never been publicly revealed. Women priests believe that the involvement of male priests secured their claim to “apostolic succession” – the Catholic Church’s principle that priests are legitimate if their predecessors can be traced back to the original apostles of Jesus.

However, Paprocki’s letter of excommunication to Keldermans frames her ordination in terms of failure, saying she “has attempted to be ordained a priest,” implying that she failed because she – a woman – is incapable of becoming a priest.

“It’s because it’s a woman praying a prayer,” Keldermans said incredulously. “That’s what Mass is; it’s a prayer. The men have said women can’t do that. There is no reason.”

Keldermans’ congregation has met three times since their first service on June 8, although Keldermans says they will meet more regularly after summer ends.

“People come up with tears in their eyes, feeling so good about being able to come back to the church,” Keldermans says. “They’ve been hurt in some way by the institution, and they’re now back. That’s very humbling, to think that I had anything to do with that.”

One of those people who was hurt but has now returned is John Freml of Springfield. Freml, who serves as Holy Family’s spokesman, says he grew up in the Catholic Church but began to question his Catholic faith around the time that he realized he is gay. He says being part of Keldermans’ congregation has given him a church home where he feels accepted.

“It’s a really personal issue for me, because I wonder how many other people are in the same situation I was in, and they just need someone to say those words (of support),” he said. “They need someone from the church to be saying those words to them.”

Keldermans likens the woman priest movement to the Suffragettes, women who fought for voting rights in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“They fought tooth and nail for the right to vote. One hundred years later, we don’t think anything about it,” Keldermans says. “That’s what I think we’re doing. Fifty years from now, there are going to be women priests. That’s the way society is moving. We’re the building blocks. We’re the foundation.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at