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'Don't deny me your prayers'

Last modified: 3/20/2011 12:00:00 AM
She knows how it sounds, but Theresa Novak Chabot's watercolor gaze remains clear, insistent, her tone schoolteacher firm when she tells of the time God spoke in her ear.

It happened one day when she was at Mass with a friend, her calling to become a priest nagging at the corners of her mind. Six weeks earlier she'd removed her name from a list of candidates for ordination, ending a journey more tortuous and thick with obstacles than she'd imagined. The indignation and opposition of her superiors she could bear, but the thought of leaving behind the incense-laden rituals, the stained glass and liturgical music of her beloved church was breaking her resolve.

"I would go to Mass and think, 'I won't be able to have this,' " Novak Chabot recalled. "I thought, 'I can't do this. It's too much to give up.' "

After pulling out of the ordination process, though, Novak Chabot could find no peace. She knew she was more than capable of leading a parish, and she knew she had to be part of the bold movement seeking to gain equality for women in the Catholic Church.

"It wasn't just a call . . . it was a knowing," said Novak Chabot, sitting on a cream-colored sofa in her Manchester home, a checkerboard of sun at her feet. "I had to step back and recognize where I was in history and realize this was not about me."

Still, she needed one more push to complete that final leg of her journey, and it came, she says, in the form of an audible voice. As she prepared to partake of the Eucharist that day - in the church where she often served as a Eucharistic minister and lector - she suddenly heard someone say, "Don't deny me your prayers."

Because she has no hearing in one ear, Novak Chabot is very sensitive to sound and often has to look around to figure out where a voice is coming from. But in this case, there was no confusion.

"I knew instantly, that would only come from God," she said.

Two years later, in May 2010, Novak Chabot was ordained a priest by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a reform movement that considers itself part of the Catholic Church and follows its strict laws regarding apostolic succession. The only female Catholic priest in New Hampshire and one of about 50 across the United States, Novak Chabot ministers to a small church called the Church of the Holy Spirit. Against harsh warnings from the diocese, they meet as regularly as they can find a free space at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester.

"I know that I am called to serve the people of New Hampshire," she said.

 'Doing your duty'

Novak Chabot grew up in Claremont in a strict Polish family and attended an equally strict Catholic church.

"My mother would refer to going to Mass as doing your duty," said Novak Chabot, 58. "It was the religion. It was the obligation. It was the letter of the law."

Masses were held in Latin, and the choir usually sang in Polish.

"I had no idea what was going on," she recalled.

As she dutifully learned her Catechism and followed the rules, Novak Chabot gave little thought to her standing as a woman. While many female priests say they dreamed of priesthood even as children, Novak Chabot never entertained the thought when she was growing up.

"It just was not an option," she said.

What those early years did instill in her were a deep affection for the traditions and trappings of the Catholic Church and a passionate belief in its teachings on love and justice - feelings that would guide her, years later, in her quest to become a priest.

After graduating from the public schools in Claremont, Novak Chabot attended Keene State College, majoring in special education, then went on to receive a master's degree in speech language pathology from Ball State University in Indiana. She married her husband, Gary, in 1974, and the couple subsequently lived in several states, following their respective careers.

During those years of transience, the Catholic Church was a constant in Novak Chabot's life. Sunday Mass was a must, and she often attended daily Mass as well.

"I would never miss a Mass unless I was deathly ill," she said.

But it wasn't until the couple moved back to Novak Chabot's hometown, in 1994, that they joined a parish for the first time. After briefly attending her childhood church, she and her husband decided to try the other Catholic church in town, a church known for being progressive and open. She had been entertaining doubts about the Vatican's teachings, and this warm, loving community was just what she needed.

"They were people with a spiritual bent . . . and once I'd been exposed to the spirit of the law versus the letter of the law, I soon realized that was me," Novak Chabot said.

 A pull toward priesthood

Feeling liberated by this new spirituality - and encouraged by the leadership at the church - Novak Chabot began to take on new roles in the church, serving as Eucharistic minister, head of the social committee and lector (the person who proclaims the first and second readings during Mass). She even began preaching for the small group that attended daily Mass, confidently and without notes.

Over time, Novak Chabot began to realize she had a talent for preaching and ministering, and she grew increasingly frustrated with the church doctrines holding her back from what was beginning to take shape in her mind as a calling.

"I would watch people in other places and think, 'I have the same training. I have the same abilities,' " Novak Chabot said. "It made absolutely no sense to me. . . . It was so unjust, and the crux of Catholicism is justice."

Feeling a pull toward the priesthood with no clear idea how to get there, Novak Chabot returned to school and got a second master's degree, this one in theology with an emphasis on pastoral ministry and spirituality. While completing her work at St. Michael's College in Vermont, she decided to become a hospital chaplain. An intensive unit of clinical pastoral training at Havenwood-Heritage Heights retirement community in Concord left her feeling both invigorated and wounded. While the other people in the program would soon be ordained and go on to lead parishes, she didn't even have a robe she could wear to conduct services for the residents.

Unable to go out of state for further training, Novak Chabot, who had worked in various positions including director of development for New Hampshire Catholic Charities and executive director of the Greater Claremont Chamber of Commerce, returned to work as a speech language pathologist. But she didn't let go of her dream.

One day, Novak Chabot picked up an issue of the National Catholic Reporter and saw a picture of Jean Marchant, a hospital chaplain who'd given up her job as the director of health care ministry at the Archdiocese of Boston to serve as a priest. Inspired by her story, Novak Chabot felt she had no excuse not to at least talk with her: She was only an hour's drive away. She arranged a meeting with Marchant, who decided she'd be an excellent candidate for priesthood.

After a period of doubt that ended with the voice she heard at Mass, Novak Chabot completed the requirements to become a deacon and celebrated her ordination to the diaconate in November 2009. A few months later, she stood in front of her family and friends at an elaborate ceremony in Rochester and became a priest.

More than 100 people attended her first Mass last May.

"Some people came just to see a woman at the altar. Some of them cried. . . . It was just great," Novak Chabot said.

 The diocese responds

Novak Chabot still considers herself part of the Roman Catholic Church, but church officials clearly do not concur. In 2008, the Vatican declared that all women priests and all people who ordain them are excommunicating themselves. Even those who attend such ordinations were said to be cutting themselves off from the church. Last July the ordination of women appeared on a list of grave sins alongside the sexual abuse of children by priests.

Shortly after Novak Chabot's ordination, the diocese sent a statement to all of its parishes warning them away from her.

"Please be aware that Catholics who participate in the simulation of a Mass or other sacraments by a 'Roman Catholic Womanpriest,' also separate themselves from the Church. They are not permitted to celebrate and receive the sacraments or exercise a ministry within the church," reads the statement from the Rev. Robert Gorski, moderator of the curia.

Last September, Novak Chabot received a letter from Bishop John McCormack of Manchester informing her that he had learned of her "attempted ordination" and reminding her that she was not permitted to celebrate or receive the sacraments.

As much as she struggled with certain aspects of her decision, Novak Chabot seems largely unbothered by the threat of excommunication. It's a decree the Womenpriests reject as soundly as the Vatican rejects their priesthood.

Nor was she surprised by the backlash. Novak Chabot can tell numerous stories of women - and men - who've lost their jobs and livelihoods by joining the movement or defying the church's teachings in other ways. One Dominican sister who was ordained was subsequently thrown out of her religious order in South Africa and left with no place to go. A woman who heard about her plight gave her a home in Germany, and at 60-some years old, she rebuilt her life a continent away.

Roman Catholic authorities are not trying to destroy lives, they're simply trying to protect their parishioners and preserve sacred teachings, said Kevin Donovan, director of communications for the Diocese of Manchester.

"She is not a Roman Catholic priest. There is a serious risk of confusion, particularly among parishioners who may not have followed the news media's stories," he said.

What many people fail to understand, Donovan said, is that the church isn't exerting its power in this instance so much as admitting its lack thereof.

"The church has determined that it does not have the authority to ordain women," he said. "It can't change its position to accommodate the times."

 Opposition and support

In contrast to the disapproval from church officials, Novak Chabot has met with little opposition from the laity. She read a few disgruntled letters to the editor after the Union Leader ran a story about her, and she's received a couple of e-mails she describes as "misinformed ranting."

Positive responses, though, have far outweighed the negative. Novak Chabot has heard from numerous people applauding her bravery and resolve, and though her church is small, many of the people she serves have sought her out because she's a woman.

Rachel Wood left the Catholic Church more than 30 years ago expressly because of its ban on female priests. Her parents were troubled by her departure, especially after she and her husband, Clayton, adopted three children from China.

"It bothered them that my kids weren't baptized," said Wood, of Pittsfield.

Toward the end of her parents' lives, Wood made them both a promise.

"I told them that when a woman would say Mass, I would be there," she said.

Wood followed the Womenpriest movement with interest and a couple of years ago began e-mailing Marchant, the priest Novak Chabot had contacted after reading about her. Through her, Wood learned of Novak Chabot's upcoming ordination and soon began attending her Masses. Novak Chabot has since baptized all three of their children.

"It felt good," Wood said. "There's no question in my mind that God has called her to be a priest."

Her sentiments echo what seems to be a widespread desire for change in the Catholic Church. A 2010 New York Times-CBS poll found that 59 percent of the country's 65 million Catholics favor lifting the ban on the priesthood of women. Many think ordaining women is the answer to filling out the ever-shrinking ranks of priests.

Novak Chabot isn't holding out hope the Catholic Church will accept her anytime soon.

"There's a lot of fear out there," she said. "A lot of priests are in favor (of ordaining women), but they probably won't tell you that in public."

Novak Chabot even had trouble finding a place to hold Mass, due to what she perceives as fear among other denominational leaders, and she knows she may never see all of her seats filled for the same reason.

"I've had people tell me they're not ready yet," she said.

 Departing from tradition

Every couple of weeks - usually on Saturday afternoons - Novak Chabot celebrates Mass with a small group of people who have found their way to the Church of the Holy Spirit. Attendance hovers between 10 and 25, and the group's composition seems to change every week.

"It's never the same," Novak Chabot said. "It's kind of evolved. Some people have specifically sought me out, and others seem to have come out of nowhere."

While her Masses preserve elements of the traditions she loves so well, they are also very different from the typical Catholic Mass.

Instead of bowing their heads and saying, "Lord, I am not worthy," worshipers raise their heads and say, "Jesus, you make me worthy to receive you."

In her liturgy Novak Chabot uses gender-inclusive language, and the only saint she'll mention is John XXIII, the visionary behind the Vatican II reforms. When she blesses the Eucharist - which consists of gluten-free bread and nonalcoholic wine - she welcomes everyone to partake, no matter their standing with the church. What makes these matters doubly exceptional is that they were all voted on by the "church family," as Novak Chabot calls them.

Novak Chabot's journey has given her a special affinity for those who find themselves at odds with the Catholic Church or disenfranchised from its teachings. She's already performed weddings for couples who wanted a religious ceremony but couldn't or chose not to get married in a church, and she believes her unique position will allow her to help many other Catholics.

"I definitely know that I am called to help people who have left the Catholic Church," she said. "I love the Catholic Church. . . . It's just part of my being."


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