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A Movement Begins
In the United States of America, the yearning of Roman Catholic women to become priests prompted Mary B. Lynch to ask the people on her 1974 Christmas list if they thought it was time to publicly ask, "Should Catholic women be priests?" Thirty-one women and one man responded with a resounding "Yes!"
The founding of the Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) was also catalyzed by the decisions of other Christian communions to ordain women in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s: the United Church of Christ, the Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, and, having the most direct impact, the Episcopal Church USA. In 1974, eleven Episcopal women were “irregularly” ordained priests.
Almost immediately after Lynch’s letters, armed with the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, U.S. Catholic proponents of women’s ordination, both women and men, many of them Scripture scholars like the late Carroll Stuehmueller, began planning what they thought would be a small national meeting for like-minded people, a Women’s Ordination Conference, in Detroit, Michigan. This was organized under the auspices of Priests For Equality (PFE), an organization founded by William Callahan, SJ. PFE’s charter called for the ordination of women, and as it turned out, the response from Catholics around the country was overwhelming. With room for only 1,400, nearly 2,000 people gathered in Detroit on Thanksgiving weekend of 1975, and hence the Women's Ordination Conference was born.
The following year, WOC was established as a separate entity whose mission was specifically to advance the cause of ordaining women to the Roman Catholic priesthood. To continue the impetus of the conference, a CORE Commission of nineteen women became the leadership circle of WOC. On June 30, 1977, WOC was incorporated in the District of Columbia by William Callahan, Dolores (Dolly) Pomerleau, Maureen Fiedler, Elizabeth Campbell and Ruth Fitzpatrick, who was hired as director to open the first office in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
In 1976, before WOC’s incorporation, Pope Paul VI issued Inter Insignores, which declared that the Vatican “is not authorized” to admit women to the priesthood. WOC had its work cut out for it from that day on. The new WOC office immediately coordinated liturgical protests around the country at major cathedrals. Such actions are characteristic of WOC throughout its history.
WOC soon began developing programs to proactively work for women’s ordination. In 1978, the first issue of Project Priesthood was published to identify and describe the experiences of women called to the priesthood (the second issue was published in 1985). WOC also helped found Coalition of Women in the Church, later to become Women-Church Convergence, and held hearings in Chicago and Washington, D.C. on women at the margins.