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Women of the Church

Honoring a history of service

Bishop Stephen Woznicki of Saginaw, who ordained me in 1950 and was my overseer for 18 years thereafter, was a hands-on, outspoken leader who brooked no opposition in the diocese. We priests were with him often because he attended every gathering to which he was invited and did most of the talking at them. We couldn’t believe our ears when he told us how he went, hat in hand, to Adrian to Mother Gerald, prioress of the Dominican Sisters, or to Livonia to Mother Laudine, provincial of the Felician Sisters, to plead for teachers for the new schools the diocese wanted to open. That was the picture that came to mind when I contemplated this essay on Women in the Church.

Twelve generations of American Catholic children received their Christian formation from religious sisters in parochial schools and summer vacation schools. More than any other single factor, the works of the women religious made the Catholic Church in America the strong communion that it became in our time. The inspiration that drove these women had a long history.

It started with the heroines of the faith whose names are listed in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I in the Sacramentary): Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia,--martyrs all. It continued with the women of the past who are now honored as Doctors (i.e., teachers) of the Church: Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Therese of Lisieux, and there will be more.

Nor is it just a coincidence that women religious are now heavily engaged in pastoral ministry besides teaching, and that lay women have joined them in great numbers. The survey results published earlier this year on lay ministry revealed that the vast majority of lay ministers in the United States are women. They stand in that long line of women of the Church that goes back to St. Scholastica and St. Clare and other foundresses who first organized and trained women for full-time church service.

No church, no government, no organization, no business in history has availed itself of the gifts and graces of women as has the Roman Catholic Church in its almost 2,000-year history. Mainline Protestantism has begun to ordain women to meet their clergy shortages, but they are Johnnies come-lately in respect to women’s full-time involvement in ministry.

This essay focused on consecrated or commissioned women in the Church. But full recognition must go, in conclusion, to an even greater and far more important number—those women who are mothers, bearing and nurturing children, the first teachers of children, and their indispensable support for growth in wisdom, age, and grace.

FAITH Magazine salutes the women of the diocese, Women of the Church!