BY YOJI COLE
pushed out of catholicism
Inclusive Church Breaks Barriers
Dawn Novak moved to Rochester,
N. Y., in 1991 to work for Eastman Kodak
Co. A practicing Catholic, she wanted to find a church
that provided the same diversity she had known while
attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Her search brought her to Rochester’s Corpus
Christi Catholic Church, which is now called Spiritus
Christi Church. Spiritus Christi’s outreach to poor
communities of color, acceptance of women as its
highest leaders, and inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual
and transgender (LGBT) people not only satiated
Novak’s thirst for a diverse church community but also
made it the black sheep in the Vatican’s eyes.
Ironically, most of the reasons that Novak joined
Spiritus Christi are also why the Vatican in 1998
removed its pastor and staff and nearly shut its doors.
Corpus Christi was stripped of its Roman Catholic
status and became Spiritus Christi for three reasons:
1) It permitted women in high positions in the
church to give sacraments and read gospel.
2) It performed unions for lesbian and gay people
at their homes.
3) It invited everyone to receive communion,
regardless of whether or not they were baptized.
“But people in the community loved that we were
inclusive and everyone was welcomed,” says Spiritus
Christi’s Rev. Mary Ramerman.
Ramerman, who has a master’s degree in the
ministry, was at Corpus Christi as a pastoral assistant
for 15 years when the Vatican dismantled the church
and removed its pastor. She was told she could remain
but could not be at the altar, preach or wear an alb, the
white linen robe worn by a priest at mass.
“I thought, ‘I wouldn’t want to give that type of
message to women and men in the church.’ That
women can’t go near the altar I think is contrary to
Jesus’ teachings. That’s when I realized the discrimination in the church,” says Ramerman.
It took three years for her to find a Catholic bishop
who would ordain a woman. “We could have done our
own thing but we wanted to honor our Catholic tradition and for Catholic people to have something that is
familiar to them,” says Ramerman.
When about 800 members of Corpus Christi
Catholic Church farmed Spiritus Christi Church,
Ramerman and the congregation focused on
developing an inclusive outreach. Sixty percent of the
members are Catholic, 30 percent are Protestant and
10 percent are from other faiths such as Judaism,
Hinduism and Buddhism. The congregation also is 10
percent people of color, 15 to 20 percent LGBT people
( 25 percent of the marriage ceremonies are LGBT),
includes people with disabilities in its choir, openly
discusses racism, challenges Rochester’s government
to respond to racist incidents, and reaches out to
communities in Haiti and Chiapas, Mexico.
The church began accepting LGBT people into
its fold in the 1980s. LGBT people said they did not
want to come to church only for funerals. For Novak,
inclusion of LGBT people in church discussions was
“To say ‘It’s a choice because you want to be
different’—I don’t buy that anymore,” says Novak.
“My [LGBT] friends are carrying out what God has
made them to be.”
Says Novak: “People have to say they want something different and not be afraid of the repercussions,
and that’s tough. Even though I’m not considered a
Roman Catholic anymore, I still have the faith.”