Excommunicated, she still celebrates Mass

Posted at 6:09 PM, Nov 24, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-24 18:09:22-05

CINCINNATI -- Earlier this year, Pope Francis declared that Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, would begin a Jubilee Year of Mercy in the Roman Catholic Church.

Some wonder if that mercy will be extended to women who have been ordained as priests, the penalty for which is automatic excommunication from the church.

One Cincinnati woman is hoping it does.

Letetia Rawles, or “Sister Tish,” as she likes to be called, was removed from her position with the Sisters of the Precious Blood in October because she had been ordained as a priest by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.

Only men can be priests in the Roman Catholic Church, and only priests can celebrate Mass.

The Sarasota, Fla.-based association says it has collected more than 5,000 signatures for an online petition asking the pope to overturn Rawles’ excommunication and those of all other women priests and their supporters.

In a statement, Sister Joyce Lehman, president of the Dayton-based Sisters of the Precious Blood, said that Rawles had confirmed she was “ordained” in April, therefore excommunicating herself and separating herself from the order. She cited a decree published in 2007 by the then-Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – which is responsible for defending Catholic doctrine – that said both a person who tries to ordain a woman as a priest and a woman who tries to receive ordination incur excommunication.

Asked whether Rawles would still get health benefits through the order, she replied through a spokesman that the order was committed to providing Rawles “financial support that will enable her to live a life of dignity.”

Rawles, 67, suffers from multiple sclerosis, end-stage liver disease and Type 1 diabetes. She has lived for the past two years – with Teddy, a gray cat with a very short tail – in an apartment at Atria Northgate, an assisted-living facility near Northgate Mall.

Born in Tennessee, she spent part of her childhood in a small town near Lima, Ohio. She says she spent time living on the streets and in foster care as a teen. She attended three different high schools, but graduated from Archbishop McNicholas High School in 1966.

She became a nun initially with the Sisters of the Incarnate Word in Cleveland, but after 27 years with them transferred to the Sisters of the Precious Blood. As a nun, she held a variety of positions, including elementary school teacher and chemical dependency counselor.

She had always wanted to be a priest, she said, and could never understand why the Catholic Church wouldn’t allow that. Inspired by her encounters with other women priests, she decided to do what she felt God was calling her to do.

After her ordination, Rawles celebrated Mass at local home churches as a “catacomb” priest, out of public view so as not to cause a problem for her order. Cincinnati has several such home churches, she said.

Now that she is no longer a nun, she can celebrate Mass openly, for congregations such as Resurrection Community, a Cincinnati congregation with women priests that meets monthly at a local Protestant church. She also plans to celebrate Mass once a month at Atria’s chapel, which she did for the first time Nov. 13 for a gathering of about 45 residents, not all of whom were Catholic.

Being removed from the order and excommunicated was a disappointment, she said, but if she had to choose between being a nun and a priest, she would chose priest. It was a matter of conscience, she said, and she was taught to obey her conscience.

“We believe that we are making a stand for justice for all,” she said, “especially for women who want to see changes in the church.”

Her congregation is now her fellow residents, some of whom have already told her they want her to be with them when they are dying, to give them Last Rites.

She doesn’t believe she will see the day that the Church allows women to be ordained, she said.

“But I hope to see it happen."