Roamin’ Catholics

A breakaway Catholic church flings its doors open wide.

By Patrick Butler

Imagine a Catholic church that ordains women and married people, performs weddings for gays and lesbians, and appoints a bishop whose day job is teaching world history at a south-side public high school.

Welcome to the Church of the Holy Family, which attracts anywhere from two to twenty worshipers for 1 PM Sunday mass in a second-floor loft shared with Lutheran, Episcopal, and Jewish congregations at Grace Place, 637 S. Dearborn. If the vestments and liturgy don’t seem much different from what you’d find at Old Saint Mary’s a few blocks east, that’s as it should be, says Reverend James Alan Wilkowski, bishop of the northwest diocese. The 44-year-old south-sider, son of the late Daily Southtown columnist Warren Wilkowski, will have you know that he and his flock are as Catholic as anyone else. They just aren’t Roman Catholic. They’re members of the Independent Holy Catholic Church, founded in 1980 by Episcopal and Roman Catholic priests on both coasts who wanted to set up a special ministry for AIDS patients but didn’t find their superiors sufficiently supportive.

“We’ve always been a church for the disenfranchised, people who aren’t getting the gospel anywhere else,” says Wilkowski, noting that disaffected Roman Catholics–including himself–make up most of the fledgling denomination’s 500 members nationwide. For some that disaffection is only temporary. “We get people who’ve had an argument with their Roman pastor, so they come to check us out. They may come back for a few Sundays. Then they kiss and make up with their priest, and we don’t see them anymore. And that’s great. If we can help people sort things out, then go back home, we’ve performed a service.”

But Holy Family’s congregation is mostly people who for a variety of reasons don’t feel they can go home anymore. Church member Marc Loveless, a customer service representative with Merrill Lynch and perennial candidate for local office, said he joined Holy Family back in April because he wanted to remain Catholic yet be more open about his gay orientation. The Roman church holds that while homosexuality is not a sin, homosexual acts are. “That doesn’t leave much room for people like me,” says Loveless as his adopted son, who appears to be five or six, helps Wilkowski pass out the prayer books and ready the altar for mass. Loveless believes the scriptures condemn gay sex “because it was considered something the Gentiles did. And the Hebrews wanted to show they were different from their neighbors.”

Another Holy Family parishioner, Susan Adams, says she stayed away from church for about 30 years before learning there was actually a form of Catholicism that ordained women. She says she has no desire to become a priest herself, but she likes the idea that her gender wouldn’t be a barrier if she changed her mind.

Wilkowski graduated from Kenrick Seminary in Saint Louis in 1988 but was not ordained. He was teaching at Carver High School about three years ago when an acquaintance from his seminary days asked him for references to become an Independent Catholic priest. Presiding bishop Robert Martin of Oklahoma City learned that Wilkowski had a graduate degree in divinity and pastoral studies and asked Wilkowski if he’d also consider ordination.

“I thought it was a joke and hung up on him the first two or three times,” says Wilkowski. But it was no joke: Wilkowski was ordained in May 1996 and consecrated bishop only 14 months later. He harbors no illusions about his seemingly meteoric rise in the church hierarchy. “Mickey Mouse or Daffy Duck would have received the zucchetto if they’d have had a master’s of divinity degree.” Wilkowski twirls the purple skullcap, symbolic of a bishop’s rank, on his finger as he speaks. “Remember, all these trappings are the signs of a servant.” Christ, he points out, would have had little use for church leaders “who parade around in ecclesiastical drag expecting everyone to kiss their rings.”

In fact there wouldn’t be enough Independent Catholic clerics to lord it over the laity even if they wanted to. Right now Wilkowski has only three priests in the Chicago area–Reverend Sue Ann O’Niell of Mokena, Illinois; Reverend James Michael Cwan, ordained just a few days ago; and Reverend Thomas Economus, a former Roman Catholic Wilkowski describes as a “real gift from God.” Wilkowski spends much of his time tracking down potential priests for a “missionary diocese” that covers most of the northwestern United States. Because the Independent Catholics have no seminary of their own, Wilkowski tries to recruit “inactive clergy from the Roman or Episcopal communities” who already have the proper “formation,” or theological training.

Non-Roman Catholicism, he explains, dates back at least to the 1720s, when some Dutch Jansenists (perhaps best described as Catholic Puritans) broke with Rome but continued to consider themselves Catholics. The Old Catholic movement took off in the 1870s, when a number of central Europeans split with the Vatican over papal infallibility (the belief that the pope cannot err when defining church dogma). Another non-Roman Catholic denomination, the Polish National Catholic Church, was founded here in Chicago, and includes Saint Hedwig’s Church, 3320 E. 134th (not to be confused with the Roman Saint Hedwig at 2226 N. Hoyne).

Like the Romanists, Independent Catholics believe in seven sacraments–baptism, confirmation, eucharist, reconciliation (Wilkowski was once mugged at Grace Place while waiting to hear confessions), anointing of the sick, holy orders (ordination of priests and deacons), and matrimony. They also believe in transubstantiation (the literal transformation of the communion bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ). Their priests and bishops claim the same direct succession from the apostles as Roman Catholic churchmen; Roman Catholics dispute the Independents’ ecclesiastical lineage, contending that the Episcopal line of succession was broken during the reign of Elizabeth I and that not all Old Catholic clerics were validly ordained.

On the other hand, the Independents allow priests to marry. They’ve ordained one woman (Reverend Mother Janine Bryant of Oklahoma City, since retired). And they consecrate same-sex unions, but only after the couple understand that they’re taking on the same moral obligations as a heterosexual couple. Wilkowski explains, “If all they want to do is come in here for a showy ceremony, they soon find out they’ve come to the wrong place.”

And while the Independent Catholics favor artificial birth control, he says, they oppose abortion as strongly as the Roman Catholics. Wilkowski has more reason than most for being emphatically pro-life. “I was adopted. If I’d been conceived in the 1970s or 1980s instead of the 1950s, I probably would have ended up in a petri dish or a vacuum tube.” Even so, Wilkowski’s church stops short of condemning those who make what he considers the wrong choice. “We try to counsel people against it,” he says, “but when they walk out that door, they have to make decisions based on their own consciences. That’s also what this church is about.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): James Alan Wikowski, James Michael Cwan, kneeling, group photos by Jon Randolph.