Saturday, October 24, 2020

Canada's first woman Roman Catholic priest Birch-Conery remembered Author of the article:Julie Kotsis, Trevor Wilhelm • Windsor Star

"Completely dedicated." Rev. Michele Birch-Conery, who spent her last years in Windsor, was Canada's first woman Roman Catholic priest. PHOTO BY COURTESY OF BARBARA BILLEY /Windsor Star

Michele Birch-Conery, 1939-2020

Rev. Michele Birch-Conery, a trailblazing feminist, professor, nurse and former nun, who defied the Catholic church by being ordained to the priesthood as a member of the Roman Catholic Women Priests, died Oct. 11 at the age of 81.

“Although technically it wasn’t, because Rome of course has a canon against women being ordained,” said Marcus, adding the priests do services in places outside of Catholic churches, including peoples’ houses and the chapels of seniors homes.

Birch-Conery had a rough start in life and battled chronic, life-long intestinal problems, which eventually prevented her from being able to digest food.

“She suffered a lot during her life, but she kept soldiering on,” said Marcus. “She had an incredible deep faith that kept her going. She was very active in the feminist movement and also in the reform of the church.”

Birch-Conery was the first Roman Catholic woman priest in Canada, ordained in July 2005 in a ceremony on the St. Lawrence River, according to her friend Barbara Billey, who herself is an ordained woman priest.

She was completely dedicated to the justice work of equality and inclusivity and the church.

Billey encouraged Birch-Conery to move from Vancouver to Windsor about eight years ago.

They ministered together with the Heart of Compassion International Faith Community, joined by Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests Karen Kerrigan and Marcus, who both live in Michigan.

“She worked really hard. She was completely dedicated to the justice work of equality and inclusivity and the church,” Billey said.

“She’s somebody you’d want to emulate,” said Jennifer Marcus, the first priest ordained by Birch-Conery, after she became a bishop in 2015. “She was a very bright person. We spent many a night discussing philosophy and literature and you name it.

“We’d be having a couple drinks and it would be two or three in the morning, we’d still be chatting away. Going to her place on weekends in Windsor was a delight. It was just one of those beautiful experiences.”

There are about 165 women priests worldwide, Marcus said. The group started in Germany where two male bishops ordained seven women in international waters so no male Roman Catholic bishop could deny that it was legitimate. (Correction: According to the international Roman Catholic Women Priests statistics , the worldwide RCWP movement as of Oct. 2020 has approximately a total of 277 members, 

200 priests, 19 deacons,  18 bishops, 1 bishop elect,  Ordained 238, (candidates 25, Support Members 14) Bridget Mary Meehan ARCWP)

Birch-Conery was born to a single mother, Rose Conery, and then fostered before being adopted at four years old, but, “sadly, her adoptive parents were abusive.”

She attended two convent boarding schools and became an accomplished pianist, before studying to become a registered nurse at Holy Cross Hospital in Calgary, graduating in 1962.

“She had an incredible deep faith that kept her going.” Trailblazing feminist, professor, nurse and former nun Rev. Michele Birch-Conery, right, with Barbara Billey, both of whom defied the Catholic church orthodoxy by becoming ordained women priests. PHOTO BY COURTESY OF BARBARA BILLEY /Windsor Star

In August 1963, Birch-Conery entered the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. While there, she earned a bachelor of arts degree, which led to teaching jobs at both the elementary and high school levels. She also earned a master of fine arts degree from the University of Montana, majoring in poetry.

In 1974, Birch-Conery left the convent and worked on her PhD in English literature for the next 10 years at the University of Iowa.

She supported herself as a nurse, including several years with the Flying Nurses, an organization that provided temporary working assignments to under-staffed hospitals in the United States.

Billey said Birch-Conery returned to B.C. in 1985 and two years later became a professor of English literature and women’s studies at North Island College on Vancouver Island.

She lived there for 20 years, reuniting with her birth mother.

“She taught me how to appreciate the gift of everyone, including the diamonds in the rough that I would probably have judged and cast off too quickly and who have now become my really, really good friends,” Billey said.

Birch-Conery died in hospice care at Hotel-Dieu Grace Healthcare.

“I was with her every day somehow. I never, ever got bored,” Billey said. “I truly believe I’ve become a better person for having known Michele.”

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