The staff at St. Francis, the only Liberal Catholic church in Minnesota, appreciate that spiritual seekers may be taken aback by the small size of their flock. “If you were seeking a larger congregation,” notes the church bulletin, “consider that if everyone seeking a larger congregation came at once, they would find themselves in a larger congregation. Please try us again this Easter. We always hope for a good turnout for Easter.” Indeed, this Easter Sunday saw what Rev. Judie Cilcain acknowledged was an unsually large number of worshippers: when organist Noah Strom began the service’s first hymn, he had seventeen listeners.
The parish will make its mark in local history on April 26, when Cilcain, 65, is set to become the first Minnesotan woman ordained as a priest in the Liberal Catholic Church, a Belgium-based church that counts about 3,000 members in the United States. St. Francis was founded in 1923, and it has occupied the same building—at 32nd and Pleasant in Uptown Minneapolis—since 1927. (“We have a good relationship with our neighbors,” says Cilcain. “We’ve never had graffiti!”)
The difference between the Liberal Catholic Church and a liberal Catholic Church is stated succinctly in the guide St. Francis publishes for newcomers. “The Liberal Catholic Church,” reads the guide, “is one of more than 30 Catholic churches in the world independent of Rome, such as the Greek Orthodox Church. Like the Roman Catholic Church, it teaches the Christianity of Christ and administers the seven ancient sacraments. Unlike the Roman church, however, it allows its members freedom of conscience and belief. Also, its priests are not paid by the church, and they may be married.”
The St. Francis pastoral staff work a further variation on the theme of marital freedom: Cilcain (currently a deacon) and Rev. Richard Curney, the parish’s rector, were married to one another when they joined the parish in 1970. They split in 1979, and both have since remarried. “I like to say that Dick married me twice,” says a beaming Cilcain. “He became my first husband, and years later he performed my marriage to my second husband.”
Cilcain—who chose her own last name, a Welsh word meaning “beautiful retreat,” after the divorce—was raised Lutheran and, in adulthood, embarked on a spiritual quest that took her through Christian Science and into mysticism. She and Curney were attracted to St. Francis by its theological openness and its friendly community. “Dick and I were hippies,” says Cilcain. “We found this church full of neat old people, and it seemed like the right place to be.”
Cilcain and Curney both participated in the Easter service along with Jodi Christenson, a server who will be ordained as a subdeacon the day before Cilcain is raised to the priesthood. Rev. Lee Dunn led the service, which would have felt familiar to any Roman Catholic and many Protestants. A few distinctive details, though, were apparent: Dunn, while dressed in traditional priest’s robes, was barefoot. Unfermented grape juice, rather than wine, was consecrated. And sitting on the altar was a picture of a majestic tower; the picture, Cilcain explained later, depicted a mystical vision associated with the Eucharist.
“Judie’s been on the altar for about 15 years,” says Curney. “She’s been church secretary and treasurer, buying the candles and generally helping out everywhere.” The Liberal Catholic Church began ordaining women as priests in 2001, ordaining a woman in the United States for the first time in 2003. “When the bishop said it was okay for women to become priests,” says Curney, “Judie was a logical candidate.”
“Judie’s expressed a real attitude of love towards the congregation,” says Noah Strom, the organist. Strom appreciates the church’s theological stance, but when asked why he’s a parishioner at St. Francis, he doesn’t hesitate before answering: “The people. It’s a small community, and everyone knows each other.”
Seated next to Strom at the church-basement social gathering after the Easter service—Cilcain’s husband David Cargo baked cookies and cake to share around a single table that everyone managed to find a spot at—was Simone Reiss, who converted from Roman Catholicism. “I’ve always considered myself catholic with a small c,” she says. “Here, I can be Catholic and not have to have all that sexism and all those rules. I’m don’t have to struggle with that any more, and I appreciate that the priests are volunteers. That’s how it was in the original church.”
Both Strom and Reiss appeared younger than the average St. Francis parishioner, but not decades younger—Curney estimates that the average age among the several dozen parishioners is about 40. Curney and Cilcain both stress that they’re working to increase the size of the parish, but they won’t be out knocking on doors. “We don’t proselytize,” says Curney, “and we don’t demand anything.”
“I hope the gay community finds us,” says Cilcain. “We are open to everybody. It’s a wonderful gift we have to offer.”