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Woman cuts into liturgy, asks to be priest

NCR Staff

Before Janice Sevre-Duszynska made national news in mid-January by asking to be ordained during a ceremony at the cathedral in Lexington, Ky., she had tried the usual forms of protest to dramatize her distress over the church’s ban on women priests.

In a recent telephone interview, she recited a litany of her previous efforts: wearing blue arm bands to protest outside the site of ordinations, joining in for-women-only eucharistic celebrations, speaking and writing to bishops, carrying placards promoting women priests.

Last spring, she even applied for a job as pastor at the University of Kentucky Newman Center in Lexington, knowing how unlikely it was that she would get it.

Sevre-Duszynska, who holds a master’s degree in theater from the University of Kentucky and is an award-winning playwright, said she has long noted a “lack of awareness of the feminine in the church.” But this year, around Christmas time, she felt particularly “bombarded with male images,” she said.

“What is a person like me supposed to do,” she wondered aloud. “There is no dialogue.”

That lack, she said, prompted her resolve to present herself for ordination at the Cathedral of Christ the King on Jan. 17, her 48th birthday and the day Charles W. Howell Jr. was being ordained a priest in Lexington.

“When I decided on it, my body shook like an earthquake for three hours,” she said. “Even thinking about it, I was aware of just how much strength it would take. I honestly didn’t know how I was going to move my body to get up there.”

Sevre-Duszynska said she has wanted to be a priest since childhood. A clam shell in her kitchen holds chrism used at the Midwest Women’s Ordination Conference in Chicago in 1982 where participating women “ordained each other,” she said. “Since the church was not ready to ordain us, we took it upon ourselves,” she said, and took home chrism “as a daily reminder of the sacredness of this calling.”

Sevre-Duszynska attributes her even bolder action in mid-January to newfound courage after a series of personal losses. In 1990 she lost the younger of her two sons, Brian Thomas, then 18, in an automobile accident. Subsequently, her marriage of nearly a quarter-century ended in bitter divorce.

“I’m talking about the dark night of the soul here,” she said. But strangely, she said, losing a child freed her from many other fears. “The worst had been done to me,” she said. “Now I honor my son by my joy, my energy and my passion.”

In December, Sevre-Duszynska purchased an alb and a red cincture from a Protestant supply house. She then wrote cards to supporters, including three priests in Lexington, to tell them of her evolving plans.

To the priests she wrote, “You are my fellow priests. ... On Jan. 17 I will take my place as your fellow priestess. We know each other, and I look to you for strength.” To Howell she wrote, “I welcome you as a fellow priest to serve in the dynamic movement of human liberation from selfishness and exploitation. Sometimes, as in Acts 17:6, that means turning the world upside down. ... At your ordination I must quietly though boldly act from my experience. I pray you’ll respect and understand.”

Meanwhile, she was praying, tossing and turning at night, gathering courage, she said.

On the day of Howell’s ordination, she arrived early at the cathedral wearing a long coat and scarf to cover her alb. She took a seat on the aisle about 12 rows from the sanctuary.

When Williams called Howell’s name, Sevre-Duszynska was ready. In an action that some described as dramatic and riveting, others as offensive, she strode quickly toward the sanctuary carrying her late mother’s hand-crocheted handkerchief and a tiger lily in her hand. The lily, she said, symbolized the year of the tiger -- the Chinese sign she was born under.

Sevre-Duszynska remembers herself calling out, “Bishop Williams, Bishop Williams, I am called by the Holy Spirit to present myself for ordination. My name is Janice. I ask this for myself and for all women.”

She then prostrated herself at the right of the altar, where the bishop was sitting. Williams replied, “I feel your pain and I sense that you feel you are called to ordination.” Sevre-Duszynska recalls that he asked her to return to her seat, quietly accusing her of being disruptive.

She stood, reciting the names of women from the Bible and women saints, recalling, she said, the historical oppression of women.

“I said, ‘I am all the oppressed of the Bible who cried out to the Lord who heard their prayer. I am Sarah, I am Hannah, I am Elizabeth, I am the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, I am the woman who poured oil over Jesus’ head. I am Veronica. I came here today hoping for a miracle, inspired by my patron saint, St. Joan of Arc. I hoped you would ordain me for all women.’ “

Williams said, “I feel your pain and I pray to God for women like you,” though later he told the congregation that he considered disrupting worship to be “a very serious act.” During his homily, he addressed Howell, saying, “Charles, I would be remiss if I did not point out to you that the division in the church today will cause you pain also.”

Sevre-Duszynska said her fantasy had been that some of the priests would come forward to stand beside her at the altar.

Sevre-Duszynska returned to her seat, only to leave it again to join a line of priests laying hands on Howell in blessing. She was restrained by Fr. Gregory Schuler, cathedral rector, who told her that she could give Howell a hug instead. She recalls telling Schuler, “You mean because I’m in a feminine body I can’t put my hands on him.”

During the kiss of peace, Williams sought out Sevre-Duszynska in her pew and gave her a hug, a gesture she said she considered “very gracious.” She objected, though, to his description of her actions as disruptive. “That is a highly charged term,” she said. “What other channel is open to me?”

Notre Dame Sr. Mary Kevan Seibert, chancellor and spokeswoman in Lexington, told NCR that diocesan officials had received word before the ordination that a woman intended to make a statement in some way. “I’m sure Bishop Williams reflected on that -- on what he would do,” she said.

As for Schuler, he said in an interview that he is trying to “walk that fine line” between being supportive of women who “want to enter into a discernment process” because they feel called to the priesthood, and also being faithful to a church that “doesn’t confirm that call.” During the Jan. 17 ceremony, he was caught in a more immediate tension, he said, having been told by Williams that Sevre-Duszynska should not be allowed to lay hands on Howell, yet understanding how important that “sense of touch” was for Sevre-Duszynska.

Schuler said he respected Sevre-Duszynska as “a wonderful artist, a creative person” who, like many creative people, “is on the edge of prophecy. There is something beautiful about that,” he said. “In a sense,” he said, her action “was a beautiful gesture that expressed where we are in our journey as a church.”

Since the ceremony, Sevre-Duszynska said she had written to Howell and to Williams, telling the bishop that it had taken “more strength to walk up to that altar than to give birth to my two sons.”

Sevre-Duszynska, who changed her name in January from Janice A. Penkalski, grew up in Milwaukee in the home of her grandmother, Marysia Seweryniak, a Polish immigrant who taught her the power of the feminine, she said. She moved to Lexington with her husband and two sons about 12 years ago.

For the past eight years, she has taught English as a second language at Henry Clay High School in Lexington. Before that, she wrote for newspapers, did a stint with United Migrant Opportunity Service working with Hmong immigrants and taught creative writing.

Among her spiritual influences she counts Matthew Fox, former Dominican priest and author of books on “creation theology,” and Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves.

She also greatly admires the late James Groppi, a Catholic priest from Milwaukee who made headlines for militant activism on behalf of civil rights in the 1960s and later resigned from the priesthood to marry. Her full-length play “Soldiers of the Sidewalks,” about civil rights marches for open housing in Milwaukee, was produced there in 1982.

She has won five awards for her plays, including a fellowship to the Yale School of Drama. She also writes and reads poetry, does storytelling, rides horseback, gardens, swims and dances, she said.

After the ceremony, Sevre-Duszynska got hugs from supporters and harsh words from detractors who felt she had sabotaged an important ritual.

Seibert, the chancellor, said Sevre-Duszynska’s action had been dramatic, even riveting, but had left her perplexed. “I wondered where her formation and education factor in,” Seibert said. “Even her whole desire for ordination would presuppose that she was formed in her faith and training for the priesthood. That’s where I find a big gap.”

Sevre-Duszynska said she had wanted to be sensitive to Howell because she understands that the ordination was “his day.” Still, she said, her desire to be a priest prevents her sitting back.

“I am a seasoned, experienced woman and a daughter of the church who has a lot to offer,” she said. “When you come to a sense of an evolving truth and you don’t act, you are committing a sin of omission. To me, this century is notorious for what people have failed to do. And when we don’t take action, we participate in the spiritual violence.”