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Women of the cloth

Bernadyne Sykora, Corene Besetzny and Martha Sherman were ordained priests Sunday at a controversial Mass in St. Cloud, Minn. The women face excommunication for taking a stand against a Catholic law allowing only men to join the clergy. (Photo courtesy Tonya Wegner)

Red Wing's Corene Besetzny said she doesn't like to think of herself as a rebel.

"I'm one of those people who does things quietly on the sideline," she said. "I just go about and do my work."

Putting her modesty aside, Besetzny stepped into the spotlight of an ongoing debate within the Roman Catholic Church by challenging canon law that allows only men to join the clergy.

Besetzny was one of three women ordained priests Sunday at an unsanctioned Mass held at St. John's Episcopal Church in St. Cloud, Minn. In exchange for the title, the women risk excommunication and shunning by the Catholic community.

"I was afraid to tell my family," said Besetzny, whose brother and sister are both strong Catholics. "I was afraid of how they were going to respond."

After finding the courage to reveal her plans, Besetzny said she was relieved to find support. "I just burst into tears," she said. "My brother told me, 'I know you're not doing this for yourself; you're doing it for our grandchildren.'"

"That's the way I see it," she added. "It's about making a just church for the future."

Besetzny said her beliefs inspired her to promote reform from within the Catholic Church instead of converting to a denomination that allows women to be priests.

"We must become an all-inclusive church where all are welcome and the ministries are open to all people," she said. "That's what we're called to do because that's what Jesus was about, in my opinion."

"We're not doing this to be negative about Catholicism," said Bishop Regina Nicolosi, who presided over Sunday's ordination. "We love this church, and that's the reason we're staying."

Longtime friends and Red Wing residents, Besetzny and Nicolosi are both members of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, or RCWP, an international movement advocating for an increased role for women in the Catholic Church.

The group's mission is to prepare, ordain and support woman "called by the Holy Spirit and their communities to a renewed priestly ministry rooted in justice and faithfulness to the Gospel," according to its website.

RCWP's midwest chapter, which ecompasses Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and the Dakotas, is among the most active in the country. The chapter has about a dozen ordained priests and deacons, five of them in the Twin Cities area.

"The Twin Cities has always been a center for Catholicism in the U.S.," Nicolosi said. "We have the strongest group of women priests in an urban area."

Lifelong journey

Besetzny said the process of becoming a priest took about five years, but her decades-long involvement with the church dates back to her childhood.

Raised a Catholic, Besetzny said one of her earliest memories is dressing up as a nun for Halloween. After graduating from a Catholic high school in Iowa, one of the sisters asked Besetzny if she considered becoming a nun for real.

"That surprised me," she said. "I said no, not at all." Instead she spent the next 40 years volunteering for church programs and the Peace Corps.

In 1995, she married her husband Kenneth, a pastoral minister, and together they worked at Red Wing's St. Joseph Catholic Church and Fairview Seminary Home.

In the early 2000s, at the recommendation of Nicolosi, Besetzny enrolled at United Theological Seminary in New Brighton, Minn. She graduated with a masters of arts in women's studies focusing on religion, theology and ministry.

It was around that time Besetzny said she started to feel "the bug" pulling her toward priesthood, but chose not to act on the urge over fears it would jeopardize her husband's career with the church.

That is when life intervened.

Besetzny said the family relocated to Kansas City in the late 2000s after Kenneth got a new job. But the move was not a good fit, and so they returned to Red Wing after about a year.

A few months after returning, Kenneth was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer. He died from the disease 11 months later.

Besetzny said the loss of her husband was devastating, but at the same time it opened the door for her to move ahead with becoming a priest.

"I probably wouldn't have done it otherwise," Besetzny said. "I didn't want it to affect his work, because that was his calling. It just wouldn't have felt right."

Following her husband's death, Besetzny took a job at Red Wing Health Center while continuing her studies. In 2011, she was ordained a deacon during a ceremony in Indianapolis -- the first major milestone to priesthood.

Ongoing debate

Although the Catholic Church does not officially recognize or condone ordinations for women, groups like RCWP claim their ceremonies are valid because they follow apostolic succession -- meaning the presiding bishops can trace their sacramental lineage to the Twelve Apostles.

The RCWP credits its founding specifically to the Danube Seven, a group of women from Germany, Austria and the U.S. ordained aboard a ship on the Danube River in 2002. A year later, two of the women were ordained bishops, and could then perform ordinations themselves.

But controversy surrounds Bishop Rómulo Antonio Braschi, who ordained the Danube Seven. Critics point to his status as an Independent Catholic bishop -- who was no longer in communication with the Vatican at the time -- to say the ordination was illicit and invalid.

Debate over the ordination of women has persisted since, joining a list of reforms some Catholics say are necessary to modernize the church.

In an April 4 speech, Pope Francis underscored the "primary, fundamental role" of women in Catholicism, but stopped short of addressing the issue of women priests directly.

Nationally, 59 percent of Catholics approve of women becoming priests, according to a Pew Research Center poll of 325 Catholics conducted in March.

Although a majority of respondents said they approve of ordinations for women, 60 percent said the church is unlikely to change its stance by 2050.

"I'm going to be restricted," said Besetzny, accepting that her ordination will keep her from participating in certain parts of her faith.

For now, she will help preside over a traveling Mass of about 20 that rotates among attendees' homes, as well as continue her work at Red Wing Health Center.

"Change takes time," Besetzny said. Like all controversial subjects, she said there are those who are willing to accept it and others who probably never will.

"But change is inevitable," she said. "It's a truth of life."

Michael Brun

Michael Brun joined RiverTown Multimedia at the Red Wing Republican Eagle in March 2013, covering county government, health and local events.  He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program.

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