A nun in Cincinnati was excommunicated and dismissed from the Sisters of the Precious Blood after admitting she was secretly ordained as a priest this spring.
Sr. Letitia “Tish” Rawles was serving as a “catacomb” priest in order to not cause trouble for her religious order.
“A catacomb priest is a priest who functions privately in service of a specific community,” said Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (ARCWP). Rawles’ specific community is the Atria Northgate Assisted Living Facility in Cincinnati, where she ministers to the sick and dying. She is seriously ill with multiple sclerosis, late stage liver disease, and diabetes. She has been a nun for 47 years.
Rawles knows what she would choose if there was an option on returning to her order.
“If I could stay in the order and also be a priest, I would definitely want to go back,” she said. “If it’s choosing between being a nun and being a priest, then I am a priest.”
An online petition is currently underway which the ARCWP hope will send a message to Pope Francis to allow Rawles to continue as a Sister of the Precious Blood and overturn her excommunication and others in the Year of Mercy.
Sr. Joyce Lehman, president of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, said in a press release that they are holding Sr. Rawles and all involved in prayer. Lehman noted a decree by Cardinal William Levada, former prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith, in 2007, “both the one who attempts to confer a sacred order on a woman or a woman who attempts to receive the sacred order incur an excommunication.”
“This defection from the Catholic faith calls for an ipso facto dismissal from a religious congregation. Therefore, by her own actions, she has excommunicated herself and separated herself from the Sisters of the Precious Blood,” said Lehman in the press release. “She no longer has the right or privilege of wearing the ring and insignia or presenting herself as a Sister of the Precious Blood.”
Rawles told NCR she feels a mixture of things now that this secret is out.
“In one sense I feel a freedom now to really practice and do priestly things that I had to do in secret,” she said. “But I also feel a loss of community. I love the Sisters of the Precious Blood. I know they feel I deceived them because I didn’t tell them, but I didn’t tell them to protect them. That’s why I went catacomb status. Now I can be more in public.”
Being a priest is not something new for Rawles. She said she’s always wanted to be a priest and always had a calling to help other people. Rawles believes she was able to help a lot of people as a nun, both in the Sisters of the Precious Blood for 25 years and her previous 22 years with the Sisters of the Incarnate Word.
But she also felt she needed to go into something deeper, which turned out to be priesthood. Some of her ministry includes helping the sick and dying, giving last rites, funeral services, prayer services and presiding at home liturgies.
Rawles doesn’t know what her next step may be, but she does know the religious community is putting together a financial package because of her major medical issues.
[Elizabeth A. Elliott, is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.]