Femme Fidele: How Women Who Work for the Church Keep the Faith

By Schlumpf, Heidi | U.S. Catholic, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Femme Fidele: How Women Who Work for the Church Keep the Faith


Schlumpf, Heidi, U.S. Catholic


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It's lunchtime at St. Clement Parish in Chicago, and although some of the city's best restaurants are within walking distance, most of the staff members instead opt for microwaved leftovers and conversation with colleagues around the conference table. The building engineer and associate pastor stop by for a quick bite, but otherwise this makeshift lunchroom is Estrogen Central.

A large parish of 4,000 mostly middle- and upper-class families, St. Clement boasts 12 full-time, well-educated lay employees. Only two are men.

St. Clement is a great place to be a woman in the church. The pastor is open and collaborative. Women are visible in leadership and liturgy, and they are accepted and respected by parishioners. Older women mentor the younger ones. And the flexible hours, reasonable salaries, and decent benefits make it possible for women to do the meaningful work they were trained and feel called to do.

"I never thought I could love a job this much," says Flo Merkl-Deutsch, a St. Clement parishioner for 16 years and coordinator of liturgy for four. "There's a sense of possibility here. My opinions are welcomed and respected. And as a working mom, it's a dream job."

Heads nod around the conference table. "I feel valued and trusted to do my job," says Christina Bax, who is in her first full-time ministry position as pastoral associate and director of evangelization. "I can count on one hand the times a parishioner has said, 'I'm going to check with Father.'"

Even Erin Neal, a part-time assistant to the catechesis program by day and actress by night, says working at the parish has been her favorite job "of all the jobs I've ever had-outside of the theater."

Women virtually run the church in the United States. They make up the majority of parishioners, volunteers, and staff at the parish level, and make up at least half of employees at most diocesan offices. A third of Catholic students pursuing advanced theological degrees are women--and most plan to use their education in service to the church.

Today Catholic women serve as everything from chancellors, chief financial officers, and diocesan newspaper editors to directors of religious education, youth ministers, and volunteers for every manner of committee, ministry, or charitable 4project imaginable. And in the position of parish secretary, they sometimes wield more power than the pastor.

But news reports and the stories of some women in the Catholic Church highlight the continuing conflict around women's issues: threats of or actual firings, language that seems to exclude women, lack of respect from clergy and/or laity, and salaries and benefits that are anything but family-friendly. And although Pope John Paul II, in his 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio sacerdotalis, said that restricting ordination to men alone is to be held definitively by the faithful, it remains a stumbling block for many Catholic women who continue to disagree with it.

While many Catholic women see no problems with their place in the church, others leave Catholicism to find what they consider more female-friendly faith communities elsewhere. Still others stay, working within what they see as the church's limitations but vowing to improve it.

Catholic women who work or volunteer for the church sometimes struggle with an added dilemma: How do they reconcile their practice of ministry and their dependence on the church for their livelihood with their concerns about the role of women in the church?

"It's very challenging for me personally to be a woman in the Catholic Church," says Mary DuQuaine, who jokingly calls herself a "lifer" because of her 25 years of volunteer and professional ministry experience.

While she loves her job as director of catechesis and feels respected by the priests and parishioners at St. Clement, not all of her experiences have been this positive. …

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