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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

A churchwoman for all seasons


WHY STAY Catholic?

Sister Jeannette Normandin has good reason to abandon the Catholic Church. The church abandoned her. But, remarkably, the woman who was ousted last fall from the Jesuit Urban Center ministry for baptizing two baby boys still finds peace in prayer and inspiration in Catholicism.

''I've been a sister for 53 years. I love what it means. If this thing didn't knock it out of me, nothing will,'' says Normandin, who belongs to the Sisters of St. Anne.

Her continuing faith is inspirational - and to less forgiving souls, slightly unfathomable.

In its own way, this clash between powerful institution and strong-minded individual was inevitable. For years, Normandin pushed the envelope on what the Catholic Church allows women religious to do. She was a minister in spirit and action, even though the Catholic Church would never grant a woman that title. Last Oct. 22, she anointed a child with chrism oil and poured water on a second, violating a church tenet that allows only ordained deacons and priests - all of whom are male - to perform baptisms except in emergencies.

''Who do you think you are?'' asked the Rev. Thomas J. Carroll, director of the Urban Center.

''I think I am a woman of God,'' she replied.

Carroll fired her; the Archdiocese of Boston let the firing stand.

Since then, a lot has happened to Normandin and the Catholic Church.

In a flash she was forced to leave the place that was her home, life, and work for 11 years - the South End's Jesuit Urban Center, a church community based at the Church of Immaculate Conception and dominated by gay Catholic men. She now lives alone with her cat, Sophia, in a small, neat Fenway apartment. From there, she is rebuilding her life and career. The pain of that struggle is obvious in the tears that sometimes fill her eyes and the words that sometimes falter on her lips.

In January the Catholic Church underwent its own crisis. Now the church faces its own rebuilding mission in the wake of ongoing revelations about widespread clergy sexual abuse and the coverup by the hierarchy.

For some Catholics, it is most difficult to reconcile the church's unbending doctrine on various matters with its tolerance for crimes committed by sexually abusive priests. Why, for example, is Normandin swiftly fired for pouring holy oil on a baby's head when priests who prey on children are protected?

Church leaders were finally forced by the media to confront the issue of sexually abusive priests. The immediate meaning and long-term impact of the recent gathering of US bishops in Dallas are still open to question. But there is no question church leaders show little inclination to confront other issues, such as the role of women or rules regarding celibacy for priests, contraception, or divorce. For now, the official message to Catholics who hold conflicting views seems very clear: You are free to leave and find another church more to your liking.

Normandin, along with Catholics who have come together in groups like Voice of the Faithful, believe that change must and will come.

In the meantime, Normandin consider herself Catholic - and says she always will - even though her personal views often conflict with official church doctrine. For those who wonder how that is possible, Normandin describes a church of the people that co-exists within the church of the hierarchy.

The church of the people has one goal: to live the life Jesus Christ would live. The church of the people does not waste its time on silly rules about who can touch oil and when.

The church of the hierarchy ''is beginning to lose sight of who Jesus is and how do we live like Jesus taught us to live,'' says Normandin.

On Sunday morning she joined other advocates who marched from the Boston Common to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross to stand in solidarity with victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

Later that afternoon, her advice for Cardinal Bernard Law is typically blunt: ''Stop coddling priests who abused children.''

Around her, all is quiet, serene, and unmistak ably spiritual. You can force the woman out of the church. But you can't force the church out of the woman.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 6/25/2002.
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