Lay Woman Runs Parishes

By Susan Hogan/Albach
The Mercury News [Mississippi]
May 4, 2003

KOSCIUSKO, Miss. - In the wooded middle of the state is this small town named for a Polish patriot in the American Revolution. Today, it's known best for its revolutionary women.

First, there's Oprah Winfrey, who was born in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Kosciusko, population 7,372. Then there's Barbara Sturbaum, a spiritual trailblazer who mirrors Winfrey's forthright manner, albeit without her name recognition.

This wisp-like woman with the white bowl-cut hair quietly treads where few Catholic lay women are allowed by church hierarchy. She leads two parishes without resident priests.

The clergy sexual-abuse scandal that erupted last year ignited lay Catholics across the country to lobby for a greater voice in church affairs. They want more accountability, less secrecy and better collaboration among bishops, priests and lay people.

Some call it a new model of church, but it's old hat in Kosciusko (pronounced kahs-ee-US-ko). When the last resident priest retired in 1987, Catholics took to heart what he told them -- that they were the church -- and carried on under lay leadership.

Likewise, Catholics here were puzzled by recent headlines about the Baltimore archdiocese naming its first lay woman parish administrator. What's new there is routine in the Jackson Diocese, which was among the first in the country to tap lay ministers to fill the void left by priest shortages.

Still, among U.S. Catholics, Sturbaum's ministry remains rare. Only 107 lay people in 36 dioceses lead parishes. (Other parishes without priests are led by brothers or sisters from religious orders, or by deacons.)

Sometimes, Sturbaum said, the biggest hurdle to lay ministry is lay people.

"People will say they want lay involvement, but I don't know if they really do because it's still `Father, Father, Father,' " said the 66-year-old Cleveland native.

Jackson is the largest diocese east of the Mississippi River, covering 65 of the state's 82 counties. Twenty parishes spread across at least two counties. Seven counties are without a church building, and 28 without a resident priest.

The shortage of priests here mirrors what's happened nationally. In 1965, there were 549 U.S. parishes without a resident pastor. By last year, the number had soared to 2,928. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. Catholics grew to more than 62 million.

"Here, to be Catholic, you have to make an effort," said Monsignor Michael Flannery, the diocese's chancellor. "We tell parishes to look at their own resources and draw strength. They can carry on after the priests leave."

When Sturbaum arrived in 1993, St. Therese Catholic Church in Kosciusko and Sacred Heart, 35 miles east in Louisville, were thriving under the leadership of two nuns. When the sisters left to pursue other ministries, the churches matter-of-factly accepted word from the bishop that their next pastoral leader would be a lay person and a woman.

What was tougher for some to swallow was that she was a Yankee.

"You do what you've got to do to keep your church," said Jennifer Swinney, 40, who moved to the area from Miami seven years ago. "No, I don't like it that we don't have a priest. Yes, it took time to get used to seeing Barbara in those roles. But she is truly wonderful."

Sturbaum visits the sick, teaches the faith and prepares couples for marriage. She provides counseling and spiritual guidance. She advises each congregation's parish council and oversees the parishes' finances.

But she can't lead Mass, marry couples, baptize, hear confessions or anoint the sick -- sacraments central to Catholic life -- because she isn't a priest.

So she depends on priests more than 35 miles away, who come once a week to preside at Mass. The diocese calls the priests sacramental ministers, not pastors, since they have no role in the day-to-day affairs of the parishes.

When the priests can't come, Sturbaum leads prayer services and distributes Holy Communion previously consecrated by a priest. On occasion, she leads funerals.

One of the priests, the Rev. Kenan Ryan, said he tells parishioners that they don't need him to legitimize their worship.

"They legitimize it themselves by coming together as a community," he said. "They may not be able to celebrate Eucharist in the way they'd like, but they can still be a Eucharistic community."

Sturbaum doesn't just perform duties usually assigned to a priest. She also produces the bulletins -- 36 for Louisville, 55 for Kosciusko -- and sweeps the rugs.

Her official title is resident pastoral minister. When parishioners at first addressed her as "Sister," she insisted they call her by her first name. She's single, but not a nun. Sturbaum draws a nun's salary, between $15,000 and $20,000.

The diocese's 51,347 Catholics make up only 2.3 percent of the state's population. There are 14 times as many Baptists.

The distances between parishes add to the difficulty of serving Catholics in the Jackson diocese. One priest serves

four congregations; others serve two or three. Only one new priest is being ordained this year; two are retiring.

"I was never one to push for women priests," Sturbaum said. "If women knew the role of a priest in some of these small areas, they might not want it. They'd be isolated and lonely. They'd lack a support system. They'd have a lot of hard work to do."

And almost never a day off.

John Mitchell, a lifelong member of the Louisville parish, said churches shouldn't fear lay leadership.

"It can be a spiritual awakening for the parish," he said. "We grew up believing the priests and nuns were the holy ones and did the ministry of the church."

For his parish to survive, lay people had to step into those roles.

"The church is struggling with lay pastoral ministry in general," said Monsignor Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York. "Is this a permanent new ministry or a short-term fix for the priest shortages? Is this a new vocation or a job? Should lay ministry be recognized as a calling of the Holy Spirit, just as that of a priest, deacon or nun?"


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