A Change at the Altar

"It wasn't fair," said Taylor Chamness, front, that she couldn't take part in Catholic Church services while her 11-year-old twin brother could. (Photos By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
Thursday, June 15, 2006

Most weekends find 11-year-old Taylor Chamness playing football with her twin brother, Conor, and their friends. "We play tackle. Touch [football] is kind of boring," she said. "My team usually wins," she added.

Taylor also loves lacrosse but thinks girls should have the same rules as boys. "We're just as good. We should be able to play the same."

Maria Meraz, a seventh-grader at Kenmore Middle School in Arlington, agrees. Like Taylor, Maria believes that a woman can do any job a man can, including being president of the United States. Maria, who is 13, wants to help people by becoming a doctor or pharmacist.

Taylor dreams of playing pro lacrosse. "I think I can be anything I want to be if I try hard enough," she said.

With such strong wills, it's not surprising that Maria and Taylor are among the first girls to become altar servers at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church. Until March, Northern Virginia was one of two Catholic church districts in the United States (the other is in Nebraska) to bar girls from assisting priests at Mass and other religious ceremonies.

Those who opposed the change said it might discourage boys from becoming altar servers and maybe entering the priesthood when they grow up. Only men can be priests in the Catholic Church.

Maria, Taylor and Conor saw it differently. "It wasn't fair" not to include girls, said Taylor, who served her first Mass at St. Anthony's this month. The parish has services in English and Spanish because 70 percent of its members are immigrants, said its pastor, the Rev. Horace "Tuck" Grinnell.

Taylor and Conor's mom, Lyn McGee, said it was odd to have to tell her twins that one couldn't do something that the other one could. "For this generation of girls, there is nothing they can't do," McGee said. "This is probably the only thing in [Taylor's] life she couldn't do because she's a girl."

Taylor and her friends even started a petition asking the bishop of Arlington to allow girls as altar servers. She said they got most of the fourth- and fifth-graders at their school, Corpus Christi in Falls Church, to sign. But before they got the petition ready to mail, word came that the bishop had acted.

"The girls, they were all like, 'Yes! Yeah! Hurray!' They were really excited," Conor said.

And the boys? They're cool with it, said Taylor. "They're just like, 'whatever.' "

-- Luz Lazo and Marylou Tousignant

© 2006 The Washington Post Company