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Making a stand for women priests

Archdiocesan official quits, saying she was ordained

Jean Marie Marchant was responsible for coordinating the work of chaplains who visited the sick.
Jean Marie Marchant was responsible for coordinating the work of chaplains who visited the sick. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

A department head at the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has resigned her post after revealing that she had secretly participated in a ceremony last year in which she says she was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest.

Jean Marie Marchant, who for the last four years has been director of healthcare ministry for the archdiocese, offered her resignation to Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley in a letter last week in which she said that a year ago, using a pseudonym, she had been among nine women who had participated in an ordination ceremony on the St. Lawrence Seaway in Canada. That group, whose ordination ceremony is considered invalid by the church hierarchy, also included another woman from Massachusetts, Marie David, a Harwich innkeeper who now leads a weekly liturgy on Cape Cod.

``I've always seen my role as to stay within the church and to push the boundaries," Marchant said in an interview. ``But I really came to see in the archdiocese that the change was not going to come about because we women were doing a good and worthy job, but that something more dramatic and drastic had to happen. Until we really took a very strong step and defied this very unjust law -- the canon in canon law that restricts ordination to men -- nothing was going to change."

O'Malley, who has repeatedly said that women cannot be ordained as priests because Jesus did not have female apostles, immediately accepted Marchant's resignation. Although in 2003 Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI, announced the excommunication of seven women ordained as part of the same movement, the Archdiocese of Boston has not sanctioned Marchant and has chosen less confrontational language in its conversations with her, an e-mail alert to priests, and a statement to the Globe.

``In her resignation, Ms. Marchant acknowledged that her having participated in an ordination ceremony with Roman Catholic Womenpriests is irreconcilable with the position she held with the Archdiocese of Boston," O'Malley's spokesman, Terrence C. Donilon, said in a statement. ``We greatly appreciate Ms. Marchant's many years of service in healthcare ministry. The archdiocese greatly values the ministry of lay and religious women. Their contributions are vital to the life and mission of the church."

In her post as director of healthcare ministry, Marchant was responsible for coordinating the work of chaplains and others who visited the sick at 70 hospitals in the archdiocese. She had previously worked for five years as director of mission and spiritual care at a Catholic hospital, Caritas Carney in Dorchester, and prior to that had worked 16 years in hospice ministry.

A 61-year-old native of Waltham, Marchant now lives in Framingham with her husband of 19 years, Ron Hindelang, a one-time Marist priest who left the priesthood for their relationship. She has two grown children and five grandchildren from her first marriage; two other children died shortly after childbirth.

Marchant said that as a third-grader, at the St. Charles parish school in Waltham, she realized that there were no women priests.

``I had, as many children do, a very personal relationship with God and a real sense of God being there in my life," Marchant said. ``I had an altar in the dining room and played at being priest without any sense of being different. It was just a natural part of my childhood until I realized ordination was not open to women."

Marchant married young and went to college only after having children; at the University of Massachusetts at Boston she encountered other women being ordained in other denominations. She received a master's degree in divinity from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge and then a doctorate from the Graduate Theological Foundation in Indiana.

Marchant said she had attended the 2001 ordination of Mary Ramerman of Spiritus Christi Church, a breakaway Catholic congregation in Rochester, N.Y., and was moved to think seriously about her own sense of calling. Marchant chose to be ordained last year by female bishops associated with Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which says its ordinations are valid because its bishops have been ordained, in secret, by valid Roman Catholic bishops.

Marchant participated in the ordination ceremony last year using her great-grandmother's last name, St. Onge, and since that time, she said, she has quietly anointed some sick people and privately consecrated the Eucharist, but has avoided publicly celebrating sacraments because of her job with the archdiocese.

This month, however, in anticipation of participating in the ordination of 12 more women in Pittsburgh Monday (eight as priests and four as deacons), she decided to go public with her history and resign from her job.

``I don't know exactly where this will lead me, but there's such a hunger for the people to be ministered to in an inclusive fashion," she said. ``I'm leaving myself open to whatever possibility comes along."

The Pittsburgh Diocese has posted a statement on its website about next week's ordination, declaring the ceremony an ``invalid ritual" and warning that ``those attempting to confer Holy Orders have, by their own actions, removed themselves from the church."

Donilon, O'Malley's spokesman, said yesterday that ``the cardinal has imposed no penalty on Jean Marchant, because, according to church law, she separated herself from the church by her own action."

Polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of American Catholics supports the ordination of women, but church officials say their policies are not determined by popular vote.

The willingness of some women to be ordained in ceremonies that are not sanctioned by the Catholic hierarchy is radical, but reflects a trend, according to Ann Braude, director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School. Braude said there has been a similar development in Orthodox Judaism, in which some women have asserted they have been ordained by Orthodox rabbis, even though the denomination does not allow the ordination of women.

``It seems to me that this is picking up steam, and we're seeing more and more examples of it in a variety of settings, but how far it will go, only time will tell," Braude said.

``There's no reason to believe the Catholic Church will ordain women any time in the foreseeable future," she added.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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