Divorced woman painter to be ordained a priest

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A MOTHER aged 67 will today become the Irish Catholic Church's first woman priest, a symbol of a growing challenge to Vatican orthodoxy.

Frances Meigh, who is also an icon painter, will be ordained by a rebel bishop in St Andrew's Church in the picturesque Louth village of Omeath. She began her religious life after the break-up of her marriage, then worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, writing a book on the life of a doctor on which Channel 4 based a documentary.

The Church annulled the marriage, a procedure effectively saying a marriage never existed, despite her adult family of three. She also secured a divorce. One daughter will be attoday's service as will several Catholic priests, quietly backing an end to the tradition of a male-only priesthood. The former Mrs Meigh, to be known as The Very Reverend Mother Frances, will open the Church daily for prayers, mass and the sacraments, and also work on icons at a hermitage outside the village. She has spent the last fortnight on a religious retreat in Antrim, largely avoiding personal publicity.

Though there was a 9th century Pope, the English-born Joan, who, it subsequently emerged, had been a woman, Catholicism's sole female priest in recent centuries was one ordained by a Czech bishop during shortage of clergy half a century ago.

The latest development is part of a wider rebellion in the faith led by Bishop Pat Buckley. He claims he had enthusiastic public backing after arguing his case on Irish television's weekly Questions and Answers discussion.

Though excommunicated by Rome in June, Buckley's elevation to bishop has been given ambiguous part-recognition by the Church as "valid but unlawful". The liberal cleric has tapped a large constituency of couples unable to secure weddings in a Catholic church elsewhere because of divorce or mixed religion strictures.

With the Church still reeling after nationwide prosecutions of priests on sex abuse charges in the last five years, views expressed widely on radio and in print this month suggest many Irish Catholics see admitting women to the priesthood as long overdue. The scandal also reduced sharply the number of would-be priests.

Overall recruitment has fallen 85 per cent since 1965. By 1996 diocesan applications for the priesthood numbered just 131, (193 in 1994) with 52 new entrants. Among clerical holy orders only 88 applied, with 39 new admissions.

In Dublin alone, this means that while around 15 priests die each year, only three new priests are ordained annually. In the large Cork diocese no new male priests have been ordained in the last two years.

But hardline opposition to women does exist. "I've had threats from someone in Tipperary threatening to burn my two churches and to rape Frances," Buckley said. Police are investigating.