EDITORS’ NOTE: On Nov. 17, Mary Ramerman is scheduled to be ordained a priest by Bishop Peter Hickman of the Old Catholic Church, a Protestant denomination that broke from the universal church in the 19th century.
Because it signifies a move by the Spiritus Christi community to create its own clergy, diocesan officials see Ramerman’s ordination — as well as the planned diaconal ordination of former Corpus Christi staff member Denise Donato by Bishop Hickman next spring — as “solidifying” the schism begun three years ago.
In an attempt to prepare readers for the ordination of Ramerman, pastoral associate at Rochester’s Corpus Christi Church until she was fired in 1998, this article will review developments at the parish from 1998 through the formation of the schismatic Spiritus Christi community. An accompanying article discusses implications of the Nov. 17 ordination. And next week’s Catholic Courier will present a history of the Old Catholic Church to which she and Donato are to be ordained.
By Rob Cullivan/Staff Writer
The saga leading up to Mary Ramerman’s Nov. 17 ordination in Rochester’s Eastman Theatre is one of the most theatrical stories in the history of the Diocese of Rochester.
On a public level, it began in August 1998, when Bishop Matthew H. Clark removed Father James B. Callan from his position as administrator of Corpus Christi Church, which the priest had overseen since 1976. In removing Father Callan, the bishop cited Father Callan’s open defiance of church teachings on liturgical roles of the laity, homosexual marriage and Eucharistic sharing with non-baptized people — despite the bishop’s repeated requests that he change course.
Father Callan was a popular and charismatic priest. Under his leadership the parish had founded a number of outreach ministries to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned and others. Yet critics charged that Father Callan routinely flouted church law in the name of reforming the Catholic Church.
Among the practices that drew attention to the parish was Ramerman’s regular attire in an alb and modified stole at the altar, giving the appearance that she was an ordained person. Father Callan also conducted a small number of blessings of same-sex unions in private settings, and routinely invited everyone who attended Masses to receive the Eucharist, regardless of whether they were baptized.
Father Callan’s 1998 book, Can’t Hold Back The Spring – The Blossoming of Corpus Christi Church, was not only a history of the parish but also documented the practices that eventually led to his removal. The book also listed Ramerman as his “associate pastor,” a canonical title that cannot be held by a lay person.
After his removal was announced, hundreds of parishioners attended meetings in support of Father Callan and the parish policies he and other staff members had created. More than 3,300 parishioners signed a statement supporting the priest and the parish’s policies.
Father Callan celebrated his last Mass at the parish Sept. 6, and was sent to serve at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, Elmira. At the time, the diocese asked Father Callan to discern the direction his actions were taking him, and whether he wanted to continue defying the bishop.
“I accept my punishment with a clear conscience,” the priest wrote in a letter that appeared in Corpus Christi’s parish bulletin.
As the weeks progressed, meetings between diocesan officials and the parish staff proved unproductive. In mid-September, the bishop appointed a transition team to run Corpus Christi, informing the parish that it must cease the practices that had led to Father Callan’s removal. The bishop said the parish must understand that “the ordained alone are authorized to pray Eucharistic prayers and wear the vestments of the ordained offices”; that same-sex unions could not be blessed; and “those who are not corporately united to the Catholic Church may not be invited to the communion table.”
With the bishop clearly setting out his expectations for the parish, conflict ensued between the diocesan-appointed transition team and staff members originally hired by Father Callan. Father Enrique Cadena, a Mexican-born priest who had served with Father Callan at Corpus Christi, had been performing sacramental duties after Father Callan left. He also was a member of the transition team, but by the end of September, he resigned, citing his inability to reconcile his duties to the team with his support for the illicit parish policies. A month later, he took a leave of absence from his religious order in Mexico, the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit. He is currently listed as associate pastor of the Spiritus Christi congregation.
The transition team then fired Ramerman in mid-October for refusing to comply with the bishop’s directives. Days later, Father Daniel T. McMullin, the newly appointed pastor of Corpus, celebrated his first Masses there Oct. 17-18 amid disruptive protests.
The prospect of a schism emerged on the Monday evening following Father McMullin’s first Masses, when about 400 parishioners met to discuss the possibility of setting up an alternative worship service.
On Dec. 7, Bishop Clark suspended Father Callan from the priesthood for refusing to comply with any of the bishop’s directives regarding his priestly practices.
“Father Callan seems to be headed away from being part of the wider Roman Catholic community,” the bishop wrote in a diocesan statement. “My hope is that the suspension will enable him to re-evaluate the positions he has taken.”
That same month, Father Callan, Ramerman and other former Corpus Christi parishioners began a regular “supplemental service” at a Protestant church in Rochester. Then, on Dec. 14, six Corpus Christi staff members, including Sister of St. Joseph Marjory Henninger, were fired for refusing to cooperate with the new parish administration.
From January 1999 on, former Corpus parishioners and staff, including Ramerman and Father Callan, began work on forming a new church, the community that eventually became Spiritus Christi. Upon hearing of the new community’s formation, the diocese announced that this new church was in schism with the Catholic Church, and that by becoming members, Catholics had chosen to excommunicate themselves from the Catholic Church. The diocese also announced it had no plans to formally excommunicate anyone. This policy, to which the diocese still adheres, enables Catholics who have joined Spiritus to return to the Catholic Church through the sacrament of reconciliation.
In June 1999, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Rochester began procedures to dismiss Sister Henninger from the order for her participation in the schismatic church.
Fathers Callan and Cadena currently are listed as associate pastors at Spiritus Christi, and Ramerman is the congregation’s pastoral administrator. Although the invitation to Ramerman’s ordination says it will be “to the Catholic Priesthood,” diocesan officials state clearly that she is joining the Protestant clergy. And although Spiritus labels itself as “A Catholic Community Where All Are Welcome,” Catholics should not consider Spiritus Christi a Catholic church, diocesan officials stressed.
“They don’t operate in our circle whatsoever,” said Father Joseph A. Hart, diocesan vicar general.