Women priests shepherd ‘inclusive’ Holy Presence.

The Reverends Colleen Woodley and Joan Flood described the membership of the Old Catholic Church in Saint Paul as small but mighty. The two women priests started the new parish last October and, after months of worshiping via Zoom, Holy Presence Catholic Community has begun holding in-person Masses in a chapel at Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ on
Summit Avenue.

The inclusive nature of the Old Catholic Church is what convinced Woodley and Flood to become priests in that denomination and ultimately start a parish. They both describe themselves as devout Catholics who do not agree with the restrictions the Roman Catholic Church places on women, the LGBTQ community and the Eucharist.

The Old Catholic Church was established in Europe in 1870 when the First Vatican Council declared the pope to be infallible in doctrines of faith or morals. The Old Catholics split from the Roman Catholics and, in the decades that followed, established themselves as a faith with essentially the same Mass and sacraments as the Roman Catholic Church but without papal authority. Unlike their Roman Catholic counterparts, Old Catholic churches invite universal participation in the Eucharist and allow individuals of any sexual orientation, marital status or gender identification to receive the sacraments and become priests.

Holy Presence
The Reverends Colleen Woodley and Joan Flood of Holy Presence Catholic Community will welcome the faithful on June 12 to one of the first in-person Masses held by the new Old Catholic Church in Saint Paul. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Woodley and Flood, who grew up Roman Catholic and attended Catholic schools, said they still revere the Roman Church in many ways. “We have the same heart—the same sacramental life and beauty and grandeur—but we feel we need to be more open,” Flood said. “There is a spectrum of sexuality and gender and faith, and let’s just embrace all of it. When someone comes to me with outstretched hands looking for the Eucharist, I give them the Eucharist.”

According to Woodley, the women’s presence at the altar is monumental, especially for older people. “I had a nun come up to me and ask if she could touch me, because she thought she’d never live to see a female priest,” Woodley recalled. “Joan and I cherish that we’re able to do something that so many women have yearned for, for hundreds of years. We carry that responsibility, and we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.”

 

“There’s more than one way to be Catholic,” said parishioner Sharon Gerber. “We’re going back to catholic with a lower-case ‘c,’ when catholic meant universal.”

Woodley and Flood have known each other for 11 years and have supported each other in their priesthood. Last summer, when Woodley proposed starting a church, Flood agreed without hesitation. “We were ready, the people were ready, so we just said, ‘All right, God, let’s go for a ride,’” Flood said.

 

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Prior to starting Holy Presence, the priests said Masses at Spirit of Hope Catholic Community, an Old Catholic Church in Sunfish Lake. Holy Presence and Spirit of Hope are independent parishes, but they work closely together, according to Flood.

‘Our job is to love and to listen and to be present’

The priests named the church Holy Presence after reflecting on the needs of the congregation and the world. “Our job is to love and to listen and to be present,” Woodley said. “That is what our priesthood really is. We want to hear people’s stories.”

The priests are remarkable in how they show up for people, according to Holy Presence parishioners. “I see them immediately responding to people’s needs, over and over again,” said parishioner Geri Kagan. “They’ll stay up all night at someone’s bedside in the hospital. They drove to our homes to deliver palms on Palm Sunday. They connect with each of us in such a personal way.”

Since October, Holy Presence has met several times a week via Zoom for Mass, evening prayer, rosary, coffee and bingo. During prayer one day, parishioner Dan Mathews mentioned that he was attending a Witness at the Border event that evening and Woodley asked if she could join him. “That was so refreshing,” he said. “To have a priest who was willing to just jump in—to say, ‘This is important and I want to be a witness.’”

In April, Holy Presence held its first in-person Mass. “We were so happy, Joan and I processed to the altar holding hands,” Woodley said. “If I wasn’t so old, we would’ve skipped.”

Parishioners who cannot attend Mass in person will always have the option to use Zoom, Flood said. Some parishioners prefer the safety of virtual Mass. Some use Zoom from out of state. Others have disabilities that make it difficult to leave home.

Holy Presence draws people from various religious, cultural and political backgrounds, according to Woodley. “We’re socially progressive, but we’re cognizant of different political views,” she said. “Everyone is welcome at Holy Presence.”

 

“No matter who you are, you are welcome and you can receive the Eucharist. That’s the essence of the Old Catholic Church. Nobody is turned away.”

Many parishioners are former Roman Catholics who appreciate the familiarity of the Mass but wanted a change. “There’s more than one way to be Catholic,” said parishioner Sharon Gerber. “We’re going back to catholic with a lower-case ‘c,’ when catholic meant universal.”

“I love my Catholic faith, but the idea that the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t being inclusive bothered me a lot,” said parishioner Mary Beggin. As a teacher, Beggin said, she saw her school fully embracing LGBTQ children, and she needed to know her church would do the same.

“No matter who you are, you are welcome and you can receive the Eucharist,” Mathews said. “That’s the essence of the Old Catholic Church. Nobody is turned away.”

Holy Presence is now eager to grow its ministry, which supports the work of many nonprofit organizations in the Twin Cities, including Casa Guadalupana, Walking With a Purpose, Joseph’s Coat and Saint Mary’s Mission School.

“We’re very relational in our ministry,” Flood said. “More than anything, we want to be a safe place for people to land.”

“Whatever people’s needs are, if they have sacramental needs or want peace, we invite them to pray with us,” Woodley said. “I always tell the parishioners, ‘My job is to love you,’ and I do.”

Holy Presence will hold its next in-person Mass at 4 p.m. Saturday, June 12, at Saint Paul’s United Church of Christ, 900 Summit Ave. For information, visit holypresence.org.

— Anne Hauth

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