Illinois Woman to be Ordained a Roman Catholic Priest
Despite the disapproval of some fellow Catholics and her likely excommunication from the Roman Catholic Church, Susan Vaickauski says she must answer the “call.”
“For me, ‘call’ is this inner presence and movement that pushes me in a certain direction, and it is a presence and movement that I have no control over,” Vaickauski said. “So when I say I am called to priesthood, I am saying there is this profound ‘something’ that is more than myself that says, ‘Yes, this is what I am asking you to do.'”
Vaickauski, 69, a member of Northbrook’s Our Lady of the Brook since shortly after moving to the village in 1974, is scheduled to be ordained on June 11 by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a group that calls itself an “international movement within the Roman Catholic Church,” according to the group’s website.
Her ordination is scheduled for 2 p.m. at United Methodist Church, 1190 Western Ave. in Northbrook.
Roman Catholic Womenpriests first ordained seven women as priests in 2002, according to Vaickauski, a member. Male bishops – whose names will not be revealed by the organization until they die – ordained two of the women as bishops, and told them to ordain more women as priests, she said.
The Catholic Church, which prohibits women from being ordained as priests, excommunicated Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2008, according to the group’s website.
Vaickauski said she also expects to be excommunicated.
The Archdiocese of Chicago did not directly respond to a question about whether Vaickauski would be excommunicated, or how it planned to respond to her ordination. In an email, an Archdiocesan spokesperson said that “this is a ceremony done in an entity apart from the Catholic Church. As such, as a rule, we make no comments on their activities.”
The Rev. Bob Heinz, priest at Our Lady of the Brook, could not immediately be reached for comment.
“I can’t remember a time it wasn’t there”
Vaickauski said she has felt the call to be a priest her entire life, even while growing up in Lafayette, Ind.
“I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t there,” she said. “When you’re young, you don’t know what it is. You just know something inside you is different. The people around me knew something was different, too.”
Vaickauski said she first learned of Roman Catholic Womenpriests in 2005, while traveling with her husband, Ronald, in Quebec, and hearing that the group planned to ordain women as priests on a boat as the Vaickauskis were traveling on the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Despite a strong pull to answer the call then, Vaickauski returned to Northbrook and continued heading The Fred Outa Foundation, which she founded to “improve the lives of vulnerable children in Kenya through education,” until stepping down last year.
In 2011, she retired after 13 years as a secretary at Westmoor Elementary School in Northbrook, and in July 2013 her desire to become a priest “got so bad I had to do something,” Vaickauski said.
“I saw a picture of women prostate being ordained. That’s what moved me to action,” she said. “I call it consumed, overpowered, overwhelming, intense. It was intense to the point that I couldn’t sleep, eat or function. People said, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Until I pursued it, I wasn’t at peace.”
Roman Catholic Womenpriests requires priests over 55 years old to earn a master’s degree in ministry, Vaickauski said. She also completed three years of study in “formation,” or the preparation for a Catholic vocation, such as becoming a priest, she said.
The Rev. Elsie McGrath, a St. Louis priest who was ordained by the same group in November 2007, has guided Vaickauski through the process.
Vaickauski is an “exemplary” student who is very dynamic, animated and eager with a “wealth of background in ministry,” said McGrath, who serves a congregation of about 20 in space rented from the First Unitarian Church of St. Louis and has led at least 16 other women through the process.
“Because she is a naturally pastoral person, she is extremely caring and sensitive,” she said. ”
Although ordained women priests are not officially permitted to practice in a Catholic church, their services are “absolutely Catholic,” McGrath said.
“That is a part of why we are doing this, because even though they say we have been excommunicated, we do not accept excommunication,” she said. “So that’s what makes the excommunication null and void, because in a sense excommunication is kind of like a contract. We are legally ordained as Roman Catholic priests, and we are doing Roman Catholic liturgies.”
The services do not resemble traditional Catholic Mass because they are conducted by women, welcome any participants, and do not engage in “all of the finery of the spectacle,” McGrath said.
“It’s not a spectacle,” she said. “It’s a prayer. And everyone in our community is equal. But it is definitely Roman Catholic. We follow the Roman Catholic rites for every sacrament. It is recognizable as Catholic, but it’s extremely different because it is very warm and welcoming.”
Ronald Vaickauski, a retired electrical engineer and lifelong Catholic, said he fully supports his wife’s decision, even though he knows she will be excommunicated.
“This is one thing she’s always wanted, and I think she deserves it,” Vaickauski said. “All her life she’s done God’s work, taught religion classes. She puts on dinners at homeless shelters and things like that. For a while, she headed a foundation where she raised money to build a school in Kenya.”
Vaickauski said he plans to attend his wife’s services and continue to attend Mass at Our Lady of the Brook with his wife, even though she won’t be permitted to take communion. He said he harbors no ill will toward the Catholic Church.
“Eventually the Catholic Church will catch up to the concept,” he said. “From what I’ve seen Pope Francis doing, he’s slowly working to change some of these rules…I think things will change. Whether it happens in our lifetime, I don’t know.”
Susan Vaickauski said she has not decided where she will practice as a priest, but plans to either serve the homeless, addicted and mentally ill on the streets of Chicago or to take the helm of one of at least 40 area Catholic churches slated for closure.
Fellow parishioners at Our Lady and at the Vaickauskis’ second church, Holy Family Catholic Community in Inverness, have expressed support and plan to attend the ordination, Ronald Vaickauski said.
Nonetheless, not all friends and family approve of Susan Vaickauski’s decision, she said. And one of her closest friends, a fellow Catholic who presented her last year “on behalf of the people of God” at her required ordination as a deacon before becoming a priest, declined to comment for this story for fear of reproach.
“I’m not angry,” Vaickauski said. “I’m not hurt. I’m just trying to be who God wants me to be. I love my church, and I don’t want other people to be angry.”
Phil Rockrohr is a freelance reporter for Pioneer Press.