WASHINGTON -- The right-wing publication, The Wanderer, calls her the "chief priestess." In some circles she's known as "the Arch WOC." At bishops' meetings she wears red. At the microphone -- especially when addressing the media -- she blossoms. She loves it.
Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, the Women's Ordination Conference national coordinator, is conciliatory and combative. She can be open or suspicious, which can affect working relationships. And she has always labored in an office that never has enough money at the end of the month.
Her friends kid her when, in any new situation, she's instantly able to produce the worst-case scenario. Her flights of paranoia stem from her work on Central American justice issues -- when being paranoid was a sensible precaution.
Friends agree, and possibly her enemies and detractors, too, that if ordination for women were approved tomorrow, Fitzpatrick would be one of the first in line. Her studies at Washington Theological Union are almost completed.
Friends have many stories about her: skipping Mass in Nicaragua to sip beer in the shade of a tree with a woman religious colleague; arguing with "all the passion of a new convert" about liberation theology, at a lunchtime picnic table behind Georgetown University's Dahlgren Chapel; talking animatedly with bishops in hotel corridors at their annual meetings; insisting on driving across Czechoslovakia to meet the ordained Catholic women -- then coming home for a cataract operation.
Why women's ordination? It was always there, somewhere, in this New York state-born Army brat, who married a military officer.
Fitzpatrick was not at the Women's Ordination Conference landmark founding event, the 1975 Thanksgiving weekend that gathered 1,200 women and men in Detroit -- 500 had to be turned away. Dutifully, Fitzpatrick, though she knew about the event, stayed home to cook the family turkey.
WOC's creator and midwife was Mary B. Lynch, an ordination advocate who in 1974 asked people on her extensive Christmas-card list if it was time to ask the question: Should women be ordained? Thirty-four people who said yes met in Chicago and planned the Detroit conference. At the conclusion of Detroit WOC, female participants were asked to stand if they felt called for ordination: 280 stood. The gathering was stunned by the large number. WOC was not expected to be a continuing program but a one-time gathering. However, at Detroit, 22 core commissions were organized and in 1976 WOC became a reality. The following year, WOC member Fitzpatrick was the first full-time employee -- using a card table from her basement initially in a room at the Quixote Center, which in reality was (then Jesuit) Fr. William Callahan's apartment.
Coincidentally at that time, with Pope Paul VI's approval, Vatican officials issued Inter Insignores, which stated women could not be ordained because they do not image Christ and because it had never been done.
Ironically, during a Fitzpatrick family Army tour in Italy, 1969-72, Pope Paul VI had given Ruth a medal for her work in the Military Council of Catholic Women. "I didn't know then that he already knew women had been ordained in Czechoslovakia," she said.
Instrumental in Fitzpatrick's appointment was Quixote cofounder Dolly Pommerleau, intermittent WOC fundraiser. However, after a year, Fitzpatrick left complaining that in justice's name the next WOC staffer ought …