At 6 a.m. Friday - on her 10th wedding anniversary, Denise Mantell 32, kissed her husband and two children goodbye and left their Queens, N.Y., home to spend the weekend here seeking ways to further her ambition to be a Roman Catholic priest.
Rina Pino-Vargas, 29, cradling her 4-month-old daughter Margarita in her arms, drove from Albuquerque, N.M., with a carload of other Hispanic Catholic women for the same purpose.
The two young mothers are typical of a movement that is coalescing to batter at the 2,000-year-old barrier to priestly ordination of women in the Catholic Church.
More than 2,000 supporters of the cause - nuns, lay women and a handful of priests and lay men - gathered here over the weekend to plan strategy.
At one level the conference proceeded along the lines of the first such Women's Ordination COnference held in Detroit three years ago, as participants explored the politics of ordaining women into the present church system.
It soon became apparent that substantial numbers of women who wish to be priests want no part of presentday church disputes over authority and ecclesiastical power struggles.
They are calling instead for a radical reform and renewal of the church. Many of them, moreover, are quietly exercising priestly functions, such as celebrating holy communion and hearing confessions, without waiting for formal ordination.
"We are seeking not some form of ecclesiastical ERA (Equal Rights/Amendment) declared Mary Hunt of Berkley, Calif. in a keynote address that was repeatedly interrupted by applause.
She explained the model of the church the women seek "has shifted . . . from that of a male-dominated transnational religious corporation based in Rome, to that of a people's church with a people's ministry, nurtured locally in parishes and base communities throughout the world."
In such a church," she continued, "we change the power model from a pyramid to a pinwheel. . . ."
For Hunt and others who articulate this view, the role of priest "emerges from the community" instead of being conferred by a bishop.
A growing number of women in the church - lay women and nuns - are quietly experimenting with such a style of priesthood.
In a small discussion group at the conference, they shared their experiences, but asked not to be identified for fear it would jeopardize their work and standing with church officialdom.
"We have a shortage of priests and I was taking the eucharist to people in the parish," recalled Sister M. "One lady, a shut-in, said she couldn't receive [communion] because she had committed a sin. She told me her sin, and I told her, 'In the name of the church and in my name, your sins are forgiven,' and she received communion."
"I am one of four lay women on the staff" of a campus minister program at a midwest university," volunteered another woman. "It is not uncommon to be invited to conduct a retreat and to celebrate communion."
She added: "Most of us involved in this kind of ministry do not go to priests any more" to lead holy communion services, as church law requires. "Our feeling is, to celebrate the love of God as a community, we don't need to bring in a priest from the outside."
"I belong to a very small community (of nuns)" explained Sister J. "When we have our chapter meetings, in those days together we grow very close to each other.It seems a shame to have to bring in a priest from outside for the eucharist."
Most of the nuns agreed that increasingly, in such circumstances, gatherings of sisters quietly celebrate the encharist themselves, ministering to each other without calling in a priest, as church law requires.
At a more public level, the conference participants here endorsed a number of actions:
To send a delegation to Rome for "dialogue" with Pope John Paul II.
To stage a national boycott of all masses "in which a male priest presides" next April 29.
To pressure all Catholic diocesan newspapers to hire a "feminist columnist" as a regular contributor.
To demand that bishops provide financial backing and "equal access" to diocesan seminaries, which are supported by general church funds, to all would-be students "without regard to sex, class, ethnic background and marital status."
They agreed to send a delegation to Washington to present their case to the American bishops gathered for their annual meeting this week.
For many Catholic woman aspiring to become priests, the decision of the Episcopal Church in this country to ordain women has been a great boost.
"I had dropped out of the [Catholic] church for 11-years," said Denise Mantell, who said she has wanted to be a priest since she was in the first grade.
"It was just before I found out I was pregnant with my son that I heard about the Philadelphis ordinations [irregular ordinations, later validated of 13 Episcopal women]. That got me back into the church."
She went back to college to finish her undergraduate work and this fall enrolled in General Theological Deminary in New York, an Episcopal school, "because the Catholic seminaries wouldn't admit me" to the program designed for ordination candidates.
Ironically, the Catholic bishops will spend part of their meeting his week discussing the growing shortage of priests in the American church. Within the past 10 years, the number of young men studying for the priesthood has dropped from 50,000 to fewer than 8,000.
Even if American bishops were disposed to ordain women, church law, which can be changed only by the Vatican, forbids it.