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Sister, her order clash over Spiritus Christi role

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Rochester, N.Y.

Sr. Margie Henninger said she has no intention of changing her ways in order to comply with new directives from her religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester. Two weeks ago, the leadership of the religious congregation that Henninger joined while a teenager met with her and told her to stop calling herself “Sister.” Further, they told her to cease identifying herself with the Sisters of St. Joseph in any public role affiliated with Spiritus Christi Church.

The community’s leaders cut off the stipend to the soon-to-be-60 Henninger and announced that they would no longer collect her salary from Grace of God House of Recovery, the halfway house where Henninger lives and works.

Members of religious orders usually have their salaries directed to their orders, which in turn provide their members with stipends to cover living expenses.

The halfway house is affiliated with Spiritus Christi, and the ministry housed there was once part of Corpus Christi Parish. The Rochester diocese declared last year that parish leaders were in schism. The community will continue to provide Henninger with a car, pay her health insurance and contribute to her pension.

More than 20 years ago, Sr. Margie Henninger embarked, along with Fr. Jim Callan and others, on a ministry that transformed Corpus Christi from just one more moribund urban parish awaiting closure into a dynamic church community where thousands flocked to vibrant and inclusive worship, and hundreds of volunteers sustained a river of outreach ministries to the surrounding community.

Over the decades, Corpus Christi evolved into Rochester’s most visible parish home for progressive Catholics, eventually taking positions on the role of women in worship, the blessing of gay love, and open Communion that brought them into conflict with the diocese. Turmoil erupted in 1998 when Bishop Matthew Clark transferred Callan and demanded that the parish toe the line on these issues. Diocesan officials maintained that, by his actions, Callan had excommunicated himself.

Most of the Corpus Christi staff, including Henninger, were fired or moved on to the new faith community, which later took the name Spiritus Christi.

Henninger’s community, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester, is a 350-year-old pontifical order that reports directly to Rome. Until now they had remained relatively quiet about Henninger’s visible role in a schismatic church, a situation that some members quietly supported and others found increasingly uncomfortable. Sr. Janice Morgan, president of the community, was among the leadership team that has been meeting with Margie Henninger.

“This isn’t a dismissal,” she said, in a telephone interview. “Marjorie is still a member of the congregation. She is part of our family. We love her and will continue to embrace her as long as we can. This step was taken prayerfully and with great sadness.”

“We came to the conclusion,” continued Morgan, “that by our silence we were giving approval of what she was doing. We had to do something. At some point you have to adhere to the vows you take.”

Henninger contends that at its core this is a question of obedience versus justice. “For me this is a justice issue,” said Henninger. “Our mission as an order is to serve everyone without distinction. I am standing with people that they feel comfortable abandoning.” She asserts, and Morgan denies, that Rome is forcing the sisters’ hand.

“It isn’t about justice,” said Morgan. “Justice is in the work she does. We are not stopping her work. She is still serving the people. We do the same work that she does. There isn’t one of us who doesn’t struggle with some things in the church, but we work for systemic change within the church. Our hope is that Marjorie would work within the realm of the Roman Catholic church, as Sisters of St. Joseph do.”

Henninger dismissed that approach as too safe. “Vows of obedience are being used to control and manipulate,” she said. “I feel that I am being obedient to Jesus Christ. It’s a matter of conscience. The church is wrong to say that we should not be able to talk about women’s ordination. I can’t do it that way anymore. I’m not going to say to the poor, ‘Just wait, wait until the church gets its act together.’ ”

Morgan said she hoped that further steps, perhaps including dismissal, would be avoided, that Henninger might yet have a change of heart. “The door is always open,” Morgan repeated frequently. “We are asking her to reconsider her relationship with Spiritus Christi. We have offered to support the ministry she is doing, to support a recovery house that would be part of the Sisters of St. Joseph, not part of Spiritus Christi. We cannot in good conscience lend support to a church that is in schism.”

Nothing in Henninger’s words or demeanor suggests that she is likely to walk through that open door any time soon. “I’m clear on who I am. And I do belong to the Sisters of St. Joseph. I’m called there. I’ve been there 40 years.”

Meanwhile, Spiritus Christi thrives. The group now describes itself as “a Christ-centered Catholic community reaching beyond the institutional church to be inclusive of all.” Sixteen staff members are listed on the church’s Web site, beneath the name of the pastor -- “Jesus Christ.” The worship community has three music groups. It sponsors outreach ministries in prisons, among the poor and people addicted to drugs as well as overseas missions in Haiti and Mexico. More than 1,000 people attend eucharistic celebrations each week, leaving more than $10,000 behind in the collection plate. The community has been housed at a local Congregational church and recently formed a committee to look into acquiring or building a church of its own.

National Catholic Reporter, November 24, 2000