Nine women in white robes knelt on the deck of a cruise boat Monday in religious ceremonies they say will make them the first female Catholic priests and deacons ordained in North America.
The Roman Catholic Church immediately dismissed their claim. In 2002, the Vatican excommunicated a group of women who participated in a similar ordination ceremony in Europe.
The women here said they expect the same reaction by the Vatican, but they believe they are in the vanguard of social change that will bring equality for women to the Catholic clergy.
"We've had enough of separatism," said one of the women, Michele Birch-Conery, 65, a former nun from Vancouver Island, B.C. "It's past time that we face up to the issues in our church."
The women, eight of whom are from the United States, chartered a cruise boat in the picturesque Thousand Islands area of the St. Lawrence River, 100 miles southwest of Ottawa. They said they wanted the ceremonies performed in international waters to avoid confronting the leaders of any church jurisdiction.
But Archbishop Anthony Meagher of Kingston, Ontario, said in a statement Monday that the women had "no authority" for what he called "the attempted ordinations."
"It is profoundly contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Church's law to attempt to create some geographical ambiguity in an effort to legitimize one's failure to be in communion with the local church," Meagher said.
Monsignor Frank Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said by telephone from Washington that "the church teaching is clear" that women may not become priests.
In the ceremonies Monday, four of the women received chalices as part of ordination procedures for the priesthood, and five underwent the ritual to be deacons, expecting to undertake ordination as priests next year. Officiating at the service were three women, all of whom said they had been ordained as bishops by male Catholic clergy in secret ceremonies.
According to Birch-Conery, they are among 21 women who have undergone ceremonies to become deacons, priests or bishops since 2002. Some of them were "catacombs ordinations," held in secret to avoid retribution from the church, she said.
Most of the women here said they were not trying to form breakaway factions of the church, but would perform quiet ministries as priests at their homes and give sacraments to those who seek them out.
"We are doing ecclesiastical disobedience," said one of the nine women who took part Monday, a 61-year-old biology teacher in Alaska. She said she uses a pseudonym, Rebecca McGuyver, for her church activism "because a couple of my kids are active in their churches and they don't need to be hassled." However, she allowed her picture to be taken for publication.
"I've been called to do this since I was 8 years old," said another woman, Kathleen Strack, 60, a former accountant who is studying psychology and has seminary training. "It's in the depths of my soul."
Several of the women who participated in the ceremonies Monday are divorced and have children.
The first group of seven women to proclaim they had been ordained did so on the Danube River between Austria and Germany in 2002. Dagmar Celeste, 63, was one of them.
All were excommunicated as "heretics" by the Vatican.
Celeste, divorced from former Ohio governor Richard Celeste and the mother of six, has restored an old home in Cleveland as a "retreat" to minister to the needy, she said, regardless of the church's decree.
"The church will change, eventually. It's just a matter of time," she said. More than 400 supporters of such change gathered in Ottawa last weekend to support the push for women's ordination and married priests.
The Episcopal Church and some other branches of the Anglican Communion ordain women. But the Vatican has hardened its position, with a 1994 apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II declaring in strong language that "the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women."
Many in the church have interpreted the statement as prohibiting any discussion of the matter. "But of course, that is all people talk about right now," said Evelyn Hunt, a former nun and president of the Women's Ordination Conference, which organized the weekend gathering.
Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, which studies church matters, said he believed the women's activism would backfire.
"As a publicity stunt, it has a certain cachet," he said in an interview. "But this is the kind of evasion that will convince people in Rome that these people aren't really serious about having a communion with a church. They want to impose their own views, and it isn't going to work."
Staff writer Alan Cooperman in Washington contributed to this report.