Women Catholic priests breaking stained-glass ceiling in South Jersey

 Eileen DiFranco is a Roman Catholic priest. She will begin leading worship services in South Jersey for the first time this Sunday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Eileen DiFranco is a Roman Catholic priest. She will begin leading worship services in South Jersey for the first time this Sunday. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

For the first time, women priests will begin celebrating Mass in South Jersey Sunday morning in defiance of centuries-old Roman Catholic doctrine that only men can become clergy. 

Mt. Airy resident and retired Philadelphia school nurse Eileen DiFranco will be on the altar.

DiFranco was ordained in 2006 through the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. She doesn’t wear a collar, and she doesn’t usually go by the titles of “mother” or “reverend” — unless worshippers insist. She’s also married and has four children. 

“I guess I’m just an old radical and an egalitarian person,” she said. 

DiFranco has been celebrating Mass with members of the Community of St. Mary Magdalene in Drexel Hill and North Wales, Pennsylvania. The church the community was using for worship in the Tacony neighborhood of Northeast Philadelphia was damaged in a fire, DiFranco said.

Now, she and other women priests will take turns leading Catholic worship at a United Methodist church in Palmyra, New Jersey. 

According to Women’s Ordination Worldwide, which recently held its annual conference in Philadelphia in advance of Pope Francis’ visit to the city, about 180 women have been ordained Roman Catholic priests, although they are not recognized by the Vatican.

“That cannot be done,” Pope Francis said when asked about women’s ordination during his flight back to Rome from Philadelphia last week.

DiFranco said she respectfully disagrees. 

On Sunday, she plans to preach on the pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, in honor of his feast day.

“God told him to rebuild the church, and he took that literally and was trying to rebuild a church brick-by-brick,” DiFranco said. “But what I think God meant was for Francis just like us to rebuild the church in a different way … that makes it open and loving for everybody.”

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