SARASOTA — A former nun who the Vatican says has been excommunicated ordained two women priests and one deacon in Sarasota, part of a growing and controversial movement claiming to be an offshoot of the Catholic church.
The ordinations were the first in Florida by the group known as Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which preaches equality for women by allowing them into the priesthood and plays down allegiance to the pope.
The official Catholic Church calls the movement and the ordinations illegitimate, and the local diocese sent letters to parishes saying any Catholics who support the ordination of women by attending the ceremony will be automatically excommunicated — a banishment from participating in church sacraments such as baptism and communion — until forgiveness is given by a priest.
"Good!" said Bridget Mary Meehan, the former nun who performed the ordinations and is one of five bishops in the national movement. "They're upping the ante. People will have to be courageous to support us, and that is what this is about. Like our sister Rosa Parks, we refuse to sit on the back of the bus any longer."
Bishop Frank J. Dewane, leader of the Diocese of Venice, which includes Sarasota, refused to be interviewed about the ordinations. The diocese said its warning that any Catholic attending the ceremony will be excommunicated follows orders from Rome.
The Catholic Church's position is that women cannot be priests because it says that Jesus chose men as disciples, and because the priest is meant to be an icon for Jesus, he needs to be male.
The Catholic women priests movement was born in 2002 in Europe, where a bishop broke Catholic law and ordained seven women. It has thrived primarily in the United States, where about 70 of the world's 100 female priests live. Most are married, many are former nuns, and some are openly gay.
Meehan, who was born in Ireland, spent 25 years in a convent and now lives half the year with her father in his Sarasota mobile home. She was among the first dozen American women to be ordained by the movement.
She began celebrating Mass for neighbors in her father's mobile home.
Weekly attendance has grown to about 50 and she has begun renting space for Mass at St. Andrew United Church of Christ, the site of the ordination.
Priests in the movement say they are acting on the Catholic teaching that you can disobey a church law you believe in your heart is unjust.
Whether the Vatican considers the sacrament performed by a female priest valid does not matter to Dick Fisher, who left his Catholic church in Osprey, calling it "lifeless," to attend Meehan's Mass. "I like it because everybody's included and nobody's left out, and that was the policy of Jesus," Fisher said.
Momentum is behind women becoming priests, said James Cavendish, a professor of sociology and Catholic studies at the University of South Florida. Polls show that about two-thirds of U.S. Catholics believe women should be ordained, about 20 percent higher than the numbers obtained from similar polls in the 1980s.
The ordination reflects the movement's growth in Florida. There will be three female priests in Florida besides Meehan, all surrounding her base in Sarasota: one to the north in New Port Richey, one to the south in Fort Myers, and one to the east in Ocala.