|Photo by Skip Dickstein|
THE REV. MARY THERESA STRECK
Background: She is a priest, a founder of the Upper Room Inclusive Catholic Community in Albany and member of the Association of Roman
Catholic Women Priests.
She was born in Albany, graduated from Vincentian Institute in 1965 and joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in Latham. She taught elementary school at St Jude's in Wynantskill and St. Augustine in Lansingburgh and art at Catholic Central High School in Troy.
She earned master's degrees in elementary education at Sage College and art education at SUNY New Paltz, and doctorates in education leadership from the Sage Colleges and ministry from Global Ministries University. Her husband, Jay Murnane, died at 59 in 2004. She lives in Menands in the home where she grew up.
When did the Upper Room Inclusive Catholic Community begin?
Four years ago, I was the first woman to be ordained a priest by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. My ministry with the newly forming inclusive community began when I sent out an email to my friends to come to my home for liturgy. Twenty-five people came, over 40 were there for the second liturgy. We moved from my home to Troy and, on Pentecost 2014, named ourselves the Upper Room.
Why did you choose that name?
We met on the second floor of an old factory in Troy, and we were reminded of Jesus who gathered with his disciples in the Upper Room for the Last Supper. We decided we were a modern-day expression of the Upper Room.
How is the Upper Room different from a Catholic parish?
We are looking at a new model of church that is not hierarchical and truly respects its membership. We are not just adding women priests to a leadership role. I am part of a leadership team of ordained and non-ordained calling forth the gifts of the community. Everyone is invited to contribute to a shared homily and to participate in the eucharistic prayer, which means everyone recites the words of Jesus at the Consecration, not only the priests. Our creed is based on contemporary Catholic theology and reflects Jesus' teaching in the gospel. Our focus is not on dogma but on living the compassion of Jesus in our world. This is a huge paradigm shift that is happening slowly in the Catholic Church.
Why does the Upper Room Community consider itself Roman Catholic?
The church is our heritage. We chose to stay Catholic because we love its mystical, social justice and sacramental tradition. We want to renew the church by reclaiming its early roots. We are creating an open table where all are welcome, especially those on the margins.
When we began meeting, we had all read Matthew Fox's "Original Blessing," which opened the door. Fox was a Dominican priest and one of the visionaries of our time who outlined the difference between atonement theology and a theology of blessing. We realized we're not born in original sin, but original blessing. Roy Bourgeois, who provided a liturgy for our ordination, is prophetic and heroic, though he paid dearly to follow his conscience.
It cost him his membership as a Maryknoll priest.
What is your relationship with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany?
We have never been confrontational with the Albany diocese. I think Pope Francis is a wonderful pope for our time, providing great leadership in many areas of social justice. He has called for a commission that may recommend opening the door to women deacons. I see women deacons as a possible first step toward women priests and the full equality of women in all areas of ministry in the church.
I hope that a future dialogue will lead to an appreciation of women priests in a renewed priestly ministry in a discipleship of equals.
How is the Upper Room community connected with the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests?
Six members of the Upper Room Inclusive Catholic Community have been ordained by the association. Two members will be ordained at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Albany on July 8. The Roman Catholic Women Priests movement began in 2002 with the ordination of seven women in Germany. It has grown to 250. I participated in the most recent ordination in Asheville, N.C., on April 30.
You've been a nun, a teacher, a community organizer, a wife and widow, and you're a priest.
I knew when in the third grade at St. Pius X in Loudonville that I was going to be a Sister of St. Joseph. When I joined at 17, I was just a kid learning what it meant to be a woman. It was an amazing place to grow up. I learned to be a strong woman because I was with other strong women of faith with a focus on ministry and service. I ended up living on Eighth Street in Troy in an apartment with other nuns, including Mary Jane Smith when she began her ministry with Unity House. She was a powerhouse.
I left the sisters after 18 years and continued my ministry the next day. I didn't leave because I was dissatisfied. I left because I found my soul mate and the love of my life. What followed were the best years of my life. I already had a lot of formal education, but being with children and young adults, that was my real education.
I had been developing programs with an education component for public housing residents at the Taylor Apartments, and I was working with Jay Murnane. Jay was an Albany priest in campus ministry, a chaplain at RPI and Sage College, and a wonderful presence in the diocese, living at the Taylor Apartments and working with his neighbors. We started the Ark after-school art program in 1978 and the Ark Community Charter School in North Troy in 2001 to continue to work with children struggling with issues caused by poverty.
The school closed in 2014. The state judged the level of learning only by standardized tests, and we fell short. But the children were brilliant. We've watched those kids go on and be successful in middle and high school. The first child who came to the Ark in 1978 is now executive director of its after-school program partnering with the Lansingburgh School District.
Will inclusive Catholic communities with women priests be accepted by the pope and church hierarchy?
We can hope. One hundred years from now, we'll say, "Of course, women should be priests." But change will never happen unless you have a Joan of Arc or Rosa Parks. It takes an open mind and communities, like the Upper Room, living the vision of gospel equality now.
The church is going through another Reformation that is shaking up the clerical and hierarchical system. We are evolving as a church and we're a part of the growing pains. It is important that we have creative thinkers who are added to the discussion.
Thirty-three million Catholics have left the church over a variety of issues like the church's teaching on divorce and remarriage, gay, lesbian and transgender relationships.
We're the pioneers of a church where all are welcome to receive sacraments. We're the Rosa Parks of the church. We are leading the church into its future, which is now.
We meet Sundays at 10 a.m. in Albany at the New Covenant Presbyterian Church, 916 Western Ave.
Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan and I started People's Catholic Seminary for women interested in walking the path to ordination. It provides a seminary experience without walls that presents theology for the 21st century from a progressive perspective to inspire and educate individuals and groups who embrace a vision of church that is inclusive, liberating, empowering and equal.
— Rob Brill