I can walk to church in 15 minutes, but last week, I drove to the deep south of Calgary in search of St. Brigid of Kildare Catholic Community
. I met Monica Kilburn-Smith, a womanpriest with St. Brigid’s, last fall. Curious and wanting to be supportive of holy rebels, I set out.
The congregation meets in a community hall, and yes, I counted heads: one child, 12 men and 32 women. St. Brigid's, to my United Church mind, didn't seem much different from what I have grown accustomed to. But one person there told me, "We don't tell many people that we attend St. Brigid's." This comment was at the heart of why I wanted to come. In the Protestant church; Sikh or Buddhist temples; synagogues; Aboriginal or pagan gatherings, women routinely lead ceremonies. But for this community, it's new and — for some — a little scary. I happened to sit beside a married priest during my visit, which delighted me.
To date, there are 12 womenpriests in Canada. Calgary’s St. Brigid’s, the oldest congregation led by a womanpriest, began as a house church. Back then, it rented space in a United Church before finally moving to the community hall. Kilburn-Smith, 55, was ordained a Roman Catholic womanpriest in 2008 in Victoria B.C. by Bishop Patricia Fresen. She’s an accredited professional chaplain, trained Spiritual Director and Reiki Master, and is currently working on a Doctor of Ministry degree. She’s the mother of two teenage daughters, too. Each month, she conducts one Sunday mass at St. Brigid’s and one mid-week event.
At mass, Kilburn-Smith preached on scriptures that brought together Earth Day and the Resurrection story before inviting others to comment. Five people spoke spontaneously, which surprised and delighted me. We heard personal stories as well as stories about ex-convicts, finding new life through the Mennonite Central Committee and the Calgary Peace Prize celebration (The prize was presented to the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.).
What’s more, three guitarists accompanied strong congregational singing (I must admit wanting to edit some lyrics for inclusive language.) while ongregational prayers included a “Prayer for Peace” by Jane Goodall and the Aramaic version of The Lord's Prayer. I've attended mass and heard the male priest make clear that only baptized Catholics were welcome at Communion. Here, however, Kilburn-Smith stressed that the bread and wine is for all.
She says that her vocation to the priesthood emerged out of her professional ministry and theological studies, her love for the church and Roman Catholic sacramental tradition, as well as concern for social and gender justice issues. Currently, St. Brigid's is fundraising to bring Roy Bourgois to Calgary. He is a "dispensed" Maryknoll priest who, with two womenpriests, held a fast and vigil
on Holy Thursday (March 24) at Washington D.C.’s Vatican Embassy. They were trying to bring the questions of gender justice for LBGQT people and the ordination of women to Pope Francis.
Women run governments, businesses, banks, teach and serve in religious institutions. From time immemorial, women served the community as elders, healers and sages, so it's difficult to understand how the Catholic Church can stubbornly cling to imbalance.
In the Celtic tradition, Brigid — or Brigit — is both saint and goddess. She represents healing, poetry, midwifery and light. Two of her symbols, fire and water, represent balance. And certainly at St. Brigid's, I witnessed people of faith performing as midwives to a new era.