Cold Call: Jack O'Sullivan rings Frances Meigh

I COULDN'T phone Frances Meigh until this week. She has been engaged for the past fortnight with God on a hermitic retreat. And a conference call was out of the question. Then on Monday she was ordained the Catholic church's first woman priest (at least, in modern times).

For Rome, the event was embarrassing, only slightly less disturbing than if a long-haired, bearded man approached St Peter's on a donkey. The Pope is not amused by the frocking of Frances Meigh.

What, I wonder, should I call this ground-breaking cleric? "Oh, I rather like being called `Father'," explains the 67-year-old mother of three. She has a light, joyful voice you imagine angels might use if you could ring them up. "To me, `Father' is what a Catholic priest has always been called. But the bishop says I should use `Mother' as a title."

So Mother Frances it is. Wouldn't it be a mistake in any case, I suggest, to follow male traditions? Like all male clergy, she would have to play golf on Monday afternoons.

"Golf," comes a shriek down the phone. "I hate golf. My father played and I never went near him while he did it. No, I'm not going to learn how to play. And I'm certainly not having a golf club on my coffin.

"All the golf that goes on around here has set my teeth on edge in the diocese for years. I'm a hermit, so I don't have holidays. If I took a day off, I wouldn't feel that I had a vocation."

I wonder whether it would have helped her cause if Jesus had been a woman? "No," she says definitely. "I am perfectly satisfied with him as he is. I'm not a feminist. I don't agree with changing Biblical language, swapping `her' for `him'. As St Paul says, `there is no male or female in heaven'." What about God, the grey-bearded old gent? "I see God as a solid stream of gold. Brilliant, like a cloud burst."

But the priesthood seems very male, I say. Had she watched Father Ted? "Oh, yes. It's very funny. I'd say whoever wrote it had a good understanding of the priesthood."

Would there be a Mrs Doyle in her life, a housekeeper constantly pressing cups of tea upon her? "No, no," says Mother Frances. "Of course, it would be lovely to be waited upon. But if you have a housekeeper, you have to eat when you are told. I like to be alone."

Mother Frances is English but was ordained by a rebel Catholic bishop in the Irish village of Omeath, Co Louth and will in future celebrate Mass at the local church.

I've interrupted her reciting her "Office", a set of prayers taking about 90 minutes. But she is good humoured. We chat about whether she is a fast Mass-sayer(she starts with a canter and gets into a gallop around the Eucharist prayer). We discuss how useful plastic detergent bottles are for making dog collars. Does she really feel like a priest now?

"It gradually takes hold of you," she says. "I remember coming back on the plane. There was a bump over the Irish Sea and I worried what would I do if we crashed. How would I reach everyone?

"Then there was second bump and I realised I would have to be quick with a general absolution, like you can give on a battlefield, because I might not last long. But we landed safely. It was nerves, like when you first have a baby and you want to do everything as well as you possibly can."