“I always thought I was good enough to be a leader.”
Maria Annoni has also always believed in her devotion to Christianity and her Catholic foundation.
On May 7, the Grand Rapids woman was ordained to priesthood, through the organization Roman Catholic Women Priests (RCWP) in a ceremony before many friends and family members at First United Methodist Church in Sartell, Minn. Bishop Nancy Meyer of Indianapolis officiated.
With more than 200 female priests worldwide and now 12 in Minnesota, RCWP’s movement was inspired by the Danube Seven. In June of 2002, seven women boarded a ship that sailed on the Danube River, after lifetimes of prayer and discernment about their calling to the priesthood. These Danube Seven were ordained by Bishops in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church whom themselves had been ordained in the line of succession of Peter and who felt that denying ordination to women was unjust. However, in November 2016, Pope Francis proclaimed that the ordination of women will never happen, maintaining Canon Law 1024 that reserves the priestly vocation to males only. Subsequently, women who are ordained are automatically excommunicated by the Vatican.
It was another kind of church parting that prompted Annoni’s journey toward priesthood.
Since childhood, Annoni has been involved in ministry. She started playing the organ with her church choir at the young age of nine. Annoni would go on to become an accomplished guitarist and cantor, playing and singing in every church in the Duluth Diocese. She would eventually earn a Doctorate in Music Theory. And with limited career options, Annoni felt fortunate to acquire a position as Director of Liturgy and Music at St. Joseph’s Church in Grand Rapids.
For 21 years, Annoni was the heart of music liturgy at St. Joseph’s. She was proud to introduce the congregation to what she calls “cutting edge” repertoire - a style that even inspired the modern design of the new church building.
“It was a big job - training cantors, choir members, even priests; I would advise school groups, weddings, funerals on liturgies,” said Annoni with a sense of accomplishment. “I dove in with both feet and hands; put my whole heart in. At times, I wrote pieces that would fit the choir. I designed it to be interesting - to be smooth. If it’s full of mistakes, the music no longer becomes part of the liturgy - it becomes a distraction.”
Intent on furthering her education and enhancing her profession, Annoni enrolled at St. John’s University where she took a course on the Letters of St. Paul and “just fell in love with scripture even more so than ever.”
“There is so much in the word of God that goes far beyond what humans can say, what the church can say. It speaks to the heart - rather than just the mind,” she explained.
Annoni’s draw to church leadership became even stronger when she attended a Catholic symposium in Milwaukee, Wis., in 2013 put on by Call to Action, an organization with a mission “to education, inspire and activate Catholics to act for justice and build inclusive communities through a lens of anti-racism and anti-oppression principles.”
“I went to a breakout session sponsored by RCWP where they asked, ‘How many of you ever felt you’ve wanted to step into those shoes?’”
The idea of stepping in for the priest had obviously crossed the minds of many women at the session, as Annoni remembers “a whole mess of women stepped up - and I was one of them.’”
“And life has never been the same for us,” smiles Annoni’s partner of 29 years Kathleen Nuccio, adding, “You can’t put this genie back in the bottle.”
Shortly after the symposium, Annoni says things were different at St. Joseph’s. An anti-same-sex marriage amendment campaign was roiling Minnesotans and, as a gay woman, Annoni sensed hostility where she once found support. In frustration, she soon retired from her position, feeling forced to leave the program she built and the church she cherished.
At the same time, Annoni said others were uncomfortable with the new Roman Missal that had recently been introduced at mass. So she and Nuccio invited friends out to their house to discuss their confusion “freely,” she said. What started with a handful of email invitations grew to 40-50 and the group meeting at the women’s lake home became weekly.
Dubbing themselves, “Thinking Catholics,” this house church met for prayer, discussion and a potluck for five years. While Annoni worked to complete a Master’s in Theology from St. John’s, the group periodically invited women priests from the Twin Cities area to celebrate masses with them. The congregants renamed their community, “The Spirit of Christ the Healer.”
“They say when God closes a door, he or she opens a window - and that was especially the case for Maria,” explained Nuccio. “What was sad at the time became a source of great joy now.”
Nuccio and Annoni say the christening of “The Spirit of Christ the Healer,” speaks to those who have been left behind for whatever reason; to those deemed not worthy of coming to the table.
“Because that is what Christ was - the healer, with forgiveness and acceptance.”
The women say they feel most hurt by the message, “If you don’t like what the (Catholic) church is doing, just leave.” People ask them, “Why do you stay Roman Catholic?” And Annoni’s response is, “That is how I was born and raised; I’ve served that church all my life. They can excommunicate me, but they can’t excommunicate me from the church, my core beliefs.”
Annoni calls the policies dictating who can become priests, as “man-made,” and “not true,” based on the belief that the disciples at the Last Supper were all men.
“But there were women there too, behind the scenes,” she explained, also noting recent findings of mosaics in Roman catacombs depicting women priests and bishops.
Annoni has been invited to share music and liturgy at Christ Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids once a month.
“We share in our common Christianity instead of differences,” said Nuccio.
“We’re all looking to be accepted to the table,” added Annoni. “Reconciliation doesn’t happen in a box, it happens among fellow human beings in community. I firmly believe that’s where healing begins.”
Annoni will celebrate her first mass of thanksgiving on Saturday, June 3 at 2 p.m., at Christ Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids where she is prepared to provide poignant scripture relating to building community. A reception will follow at Timberlake Lodge."