On the morning of December 11, 2010, in Sarasota, Florida, a woman in her sixties, dressed in the proper vestments of her dignity and with a large wooden crucifix as an accessory, rested her hands on the head of another woman in a white robe and stole, sitting with her eyes closed and her hands extended in an attitude of contemplation and surrender. With an Amen, the American bishop concluded the ordination ceremony of Olga Lucía Álvarez, the first Colombian woman priest and, five years later, the first female bishop in Latin America.

The ordination ceremony of Olga Lucia Alvarez. Credit: personal archive.
The ordination ceremony of Olga Lucia Alvarez. Credit: personal archive.
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Originally from Antioquia, one of the most conservative regions in the country, Olga has challenged the norms and precepts of a Catholic Church that does not recognize her, but which she wishes to serve. She was born in Yalí, the City of the Three Hills, in 1941, in a deeply Catholic family that moved to Medellín in the same decade.

Olga has two sisters and three brothers. Two of her brothers are priests, so there are now three in the family, she told me in May 2023 in a video call. She describes herself as a “female priest.” She doesn’t like the term “priestess” because she thinks it relates more to ancient or non-Christian religions. There are also two first cousins ​​who are priests and a great-uncle, Father Delio Gómez, the first parish priest of Yalí. “We had that fiber,” says Olga.

In the 1930s, her father was sent from Rionegro to Yalí to work as a telegraph operator. There he met Olga's mother, who at that time had just left the Carmelite convent. Few people left the convent in those days, but she left, outraged by the treatment of the nuns. They did not allow her to go home to care for her parents and it took them eight days to tell her that her mother had died. 

Olga cared for her parents for most of her life. Her mother died at the age of ninety-three and her father at the age of one hundred and seven. Usually generous with her stories, she hesitates when choosing the words to describe the latter: “I learned a lot of peace and tranquility from him,” she says. Instead, she is full of praise and words of admiration for her mother: from her she not only received a deeply Catholic upbringing, but also a very critical one regarding the place of women in society. “What you are doing, I would have liked to do it myself,” he told Olga shortly before he died. 

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One day in May 2024, in a café on the border between Medellín and Envigado, Olga describes two prophetic scenes to me. 

The first: her mother, in her house in Yalí, builds altars with newspapers and lets boys and girls play freely. She encourages everyone to approach that altar and act out the moments of the Catholic rite, without making distinctions between the roles of boys and girls. 

The second: at seven or eight years old, she accompanied her aunt to make the flower arrangements in the church sacristy, while watching the priest celebrating mass. Olga Lucía, captivated by the ceremony, began to make up her mind: she did not want to be the flower girl. She wanted to be like the gentlemen, a priest.

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Olga studied primary and secondary school at the Presentación de Medellín, a very strict, Catholic girls' school. During the holidays she met some young men, who never managed to get past the telegraph operator's filter, who had also honed his skill at recognising their letters. Her passion, in any case, was already decided on the priesthood and for this reason she did not give importance to other love stories.

Once she graduated from high school, she realized that simply wanting to be ordained a priest was not enough to make it a reality. In the Catholic Church, there is an established hierarchy in which, above priests, there are bishops, who are considered successors of the apostles and are in charge of running a diocese (the administrative head that brings together several parishes in a city or town). Then there are archbishops, who enjoy a higher status and are in charge of a set of dioceses, or a “major diocese,” called an archdiocese. Next in the hierarchy are the cardinals, who form something like the “council of ministers” of the supreme head of the Church, the pope. This hierarchical organization allows control over territories and parishioners. For centuries, women have been excluded from this power structure. They cannot aspire to higher positions or be ordained as priests.

For this reason, Olga resigned herself to becoming a nun with the Sisters of the Presentation. It did not last long. It was the sixties, the Second Vatican Council was taking place and there was an atmosphere of renewal in the Church that did not invite blind obedience. Olga left the convent to live Catholicism in an active way, committed to the most disadvantaged. And, of course, she also wanted to be ordained as a priest.

In 1966, she joined the Secular Union of Missionaries as a missionary alongside Monsignor Gerardo Valencia Cano, Bishop of Buenaventura. There she worked with Afro-descendant communities and indigenous groups. In the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta she met Dionisia Alfaro, an Arhuaco leader from whom she learned a lot, especially on issues of leadership and critical stance towards religious authorities when they were violent or arbitrary. Every day, Olga was amazed by the way Dionisia confronted the priests. She clearly remembers the complaints that the indigenous leader made to Father Lorenzo, of the Capuchin Mission of Evangelization, for the violation of her sacred sites and, above all, for the kidnapping of Arhuaco children to take them to other towns.

"And there I was, learning from her, surprised, somewhere between scared and admiring," she told me.

Between 1968 and 1970 she worked as Monsignor Valencia's secretary. They had a working relationship full of enthusiasm and respect. Her rebellious spirit had not yet fully awakened. Eventually, Valencia sent her to Bogotá with the task of organizing the Theology Department at the Colombian Service of Social Communication, an organization created by priests of liberation theology, the famous Latin American movement that had the priest Camilo Torres as its most famous student in Colombia and that demanded from the Church "the preferential option for the poor."

At that time, the institute was key to the dissemination of liberation theology in Colombia. There, Olga began the activities she leads to this day, at eighty-three years of age: seminars on this school of thought, feminist readings of the Bible and various activities in popular education.

Olga spent almost a decade in the Colombian Communication Service. She then spent the next three decades devoting herself to social service with marginalized communities. Thirty years in which she carried the fate of not being able to be a woman priest.

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One day in 2009, Elfriede Hart, a Colombian-German friend, told her that women were being ordained as priests. Olga couldn't believe it. She thought it was a sect or a religious community different from the Catholic Church. But yes, it was happening: they were all part of the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests, an organisation that the Vatican does not recognise.

She contacted American women priests and began her formation through shared material and ongoing seminars. Unlike the lengthy ordination protocol for priests, women are requested by the communities in which they carry out their social and pastoral work. In Olga's case, it was the community of Soacha, with which she was working at the time, that made the request to Bishop Bridget Mary, who is the pastoral coordinator for the southern region of the United States. With her, and other women from her community, Olga did the seminars, reading meetings and required studies remotely. Finally, Mary ordained her on December 11, 2010, in Sarasota, Florida. 

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For Olga, her work as a Catholic is about going to the people, and not waiting for people to go to the churches. For decades she went from house to house promoting social work in the poorest neighborhoods of Medellín and other regions of the country. At first, she was afraid of rejection and disapproval from the people. But they welcomed her kindly, supported her, and over time, her fears dissipated. Even those who rejected her at the beginning became close to her. Today she continues to celebrate Eucharists in those houses, inviting people to “not be afraid of the sacred.” Other priests also do not have churches because “we do not take care of bricks; we take care of people,” she says. 

The Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests of South America , of which Olga is a member, defines itself as a renewal movement within the Catholic Church, which aims to "achieve full equality for all within the Church as a matter of justice and fidelity to the Gospel." 

It is not just a question of words, but above all of deeds. They are not asking for a job in the Vatican offices or in parishes, says Olga. All they ask is to be allowed to “spread the message of good news with honesty.” 

Olga fully identifies with these objectives and with this call to action: seeking the inclusion of women in the Church, but also of communities or groups that are often excluded: communities from popular sectors and minority or marginalized groups, such as Afro-descendants, LGBTIQ+ people and indigenous people. 

The Association also seeks to include children and grandparents. In the ceremonies she officiates, Olga gets them to actively participate: she addresses them, finds them a place and even assigns them a role within the liturgy so that they feel like a living part of the Church. This does not happen in traditional masses.

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One morning in May, in a virtual conversation, I asked Olga if Catholic upbringing limited the free development of personality, particularly that of women.

"I didn't see any marginalization or exclusion at home, but as I grew up and read, I realized that the world has to be different," she told me after several detours.

I spoke to her about the exclusion and discrimination of women in the Bible readings themselves, in the Catholic religion and in the Church. But Olga was evasive. When I was about to drop the subject, the conversation took a turn. 

—How do you tell women that the Catholic religion is not a foundation for sexism and macho behavior? —I asked.

—But I think so! It is a basis of machismo —she said with wide eyes. Then she reviewed the history of the Church, stopping at Constantine and the Council of Nicaea—. Since then, the bishops have thought of themselves as kings and that is why they dress in the style of Constantine, you see? I find it very funny to see men dressed in skirts… What can we do about it… she concluded, laughing.

Her face lights up with a special light when she laughs. That calmness and a penchant for sarcasm have been fundamental to her daily life and to her cause. I laughed with her and, with some modesty for being a spoilsport, continued with my inquiry. So why insist on reforming such a stagnant institution?

—When you love this, you realize the good that can be done, by spreading the truth… Spreading the truth… That's exciting —she said.

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The current rebellion officially began on June 29, 2002. Seven women who had arranged to be ordained as women priests took refuge on board a ship carried by the current of the Danube River in international waters between Austria and Germany. Four Germans, two Austrians and one American, known as the "Danube Seven," decided to hold their collective ordination ceremony on the border river in order to avoid possible conflict with any diocese. They were accompanied by about three hundred people and an Argentine archbishop.

Six years later, Pope Benedict XVI issued a canon excommunicating those who ordained women and women who were ordained. It was 2008 and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Church body that some consider a modern-day Holy Inquisition, and which is also charged with protecting pedophile priests around the world, decreed the penalty of latae sententiae (automatic; that is, without prior trial) excommunication against anyone who attempted to “confer sacred orders on a woman, as well as on a woman who attempts to receive sacred orders.” Finally, Francis, the supposed pope of renewal, closed ranks around a statement by John Paul II: no to the priestly ordination of women.

Olga believes that there is nothing in the Bible to support the argument that women should not be priests. It is a human interpretation that began with the Gratian Decree and has never been open to discussion. It is a decree from the year 1140 that says that women are not the image of God and that has been part of the canons of the Roman Catholic Church, in order to justify their exclusion from these leadership positions. And since she considers it an unjust law, there is no reason to obey it. 

Olga demands the inclusion of women in the presbyterate, the bishopric and the papacy. “They know, the hierarchy knows, that we are right in what we are asking for.” She believes that, in this way, a solution could be found to problems as complex and harmful as sexual abuse by the clergy of children, adolescents and adults. Regarding Pope Francis, she limits herself to saying that she sees him entangled in the issue of abuse. As a woman, she feels responsible for rescuing the message of Jesus and it seems imperative to her not to continue leaving these problems of sexual and spiritual abuse committed by priests around the world exclusively in the hands of men. 

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They had been told that this would not last long: "The hierarchy had said that this would not last more than ten years, because we were all very old... And I tell you that the movement is growing, we are more than three hundred female priests and there are fourteen female bishops." 

There are twelve female priests in Colombia today. Olga Lucía is the only female bishop. Her main work is with the communities. She celebrates mass and administers sacraments such as baptism or marriage, if they ask her to. And she is not worried that they are not recognized by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. What interests her and the other female priests most is that people truly feel these signs of grace and come to understand what a relationship with God is.

Olga gives mass in a house in a village about an hour from Envigado. There she meets with a small group of people and feels happy. She has the permanent support of her community of parishioners and of some female congregations that accompany her work, but not always publicly. She has celebrated mass with them and also with some Jesuits and Claretians. A nun from a congregation that carries out very important social work throughout the country told me about Olga's work, whom she met while working in a poor neighborhood of Barranquilla. She finds what women like her have done admirable and adds with conviction that they should continue in their work as priests. 

At the beginning of June 2024, Olga travelled to San Sebastian, Spain, to ordain Merche Saiz Azurza, a woman who has followed a similar path, as a bishop. Unable to be ordained, Merche had entered a monastery. After a while, she left, found the Colombian bishop on the internet and got in touch with her. 

Olga was an inspiration, Merche told me over the phone. “She has been a great force to be reckoned with.” For her, things are a bit different in Spain. She believes that one should not remain silent or hide, so she is part of the Women’s Revolt for the Church , a movement made up of women believers who fight for the renewal of the Church and social transformation, and who denounce the discrimination and exclusion that women suffer in the Catholic Church.

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The day we were able to meet in person to talk, around mid-May 2024, Olga offered to accompany me to the metro station when we said goodbye. It was a light rain and I initially refused to accept her company, but, faced with her stubbornness, I ended up giving in. She is a woman who, at eighty-three years old, moves alone through the streets of her neighborhood, throughout the city and through nearby towns. But she has paid a price, she told me as we walked: “This is hard… Yesterday I said, I feel like I am on a ship with the sails furled and adrift. Sometimes I feel like that, like there is not much hope, but when I see that there are people who change, I come back and I feel encouraged.” She paused and later smiled: “We will continue in holy disobedience.”

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