Eileen DiFranco with members of the Community of St. Mary Magdalene in North Wales.

by Lou Mancinelli

In 2008, two years after the Rev. Eileen McCafferty DiFranco, a Mt. Airy resident for 36 years, was ordained a Catholic priest, DiFranco learned that she and her fellow women priests had excommunicated themselves from the Catholic Church.

“We’re providing another model of priesthood,” said DiFranco about herself and her fellow female priests during a recent interview.

DiFranco, who has worked as a school nurse in the Philadelphia public school system for 23 years, is currently at Roxborough High School. In 2007 she became one of two female pastors at the Community of Saint Mary Magdalene in Drexel Hill.

DiFranco was ordained along with seven other women by a group called the Roman Catholic Womenpriests at a ceremony in Pittsburgh in 2006. Her ordination prompted then-Philadelphia Archbishop Cardinal Anthony Rigali to send her a letter telling her she was going to become a public scandal.

In 2010, Roman Catholic Womenpriests officially responded to Vatican comments that listed the ordination of women priests as “delicta graviora,” placing it in its list of most serious crimes against Roman Catholic canon law, the same category as sexual abuse of children by priests.

DiFranco is one of two women pastors who say Mass at the Community of Saint Mary Magdalene, where DiFranco celebrates Mass a few times a month. “Nobody can excommunicate you from the love of God,” said DiFranco, 61.

“They’re doing a terrible job,” said DiFranco about the male priests who have led the church since its inception about 2,000 years ago. “I don’t have to leave [the church] because we have disagreements,” she said. “Mature people should be able to talk about disagreements … we’re changing the model of the Roman Catholic priest.”

DiFranco’s road to God has been lined with objections from the very people purporting to guide the way, as well as support. According to DiFranco and fellow Magdalene priest the Rev. Caryl Johnston, members of their church are people who still connect with the Roman Catholic message but are willing to explore a reinterpretation of its doctrine. They want a church that has evolved beyond medieval ideologies they believe still plague the Catholic Church.

That’s what DiFranco and her fellow woman priests stand poised at the pulpit to offer. DiFranco was raised in a church-every-Sunday Catholic kind of family in Port Richmond. She attended Nativity B.V.M. and graduated from John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High in center city in 1970.

At 21, two years into her college education DiFranco started to teach second grade. At the time, a college degree was not required for teachers to begin working in the Philadelphia parochial school system. In 1975, she graduated from Immaculata University. She had married her fiance Larry in 1974, and a few years later, when DiFranco was the mother of a 3-year-old and a baby girl, she decided at age 28 to go back to nursing school at Chestnut Hill Hospital.

In 1984 she started to work as a nurse in the neonatal care unit at Einstein Northern Medical Center. Her career with the Philadelphia school district began six years later when she took a job as school nurse at Olney Elementary. DiFranco said kids from 77 different ethnic groups walked the school’s hallways. Since 1999, she has worked at Roxborough High School.

DiFranco is a mother of four adults, none of whom is religious. She described her own church attendance record during her 20s and 30s as “spotty.” Even as a 6-year-old girl, she brewed in discontent over some church traditions. Why couldn’t she be an altar server? “I felt like if the boys could do it, I could do it. I thought, ‘I’m just as smart as they are.’”

But “questions weren’t really encouraged,” she said about voicing her opinion. She learned “This is the way God wanted it. What could you say?”

As she got older her counter perspectives strengthened. In high school she felt that “we didn’t have top caliber teachers.” She became disillusioned with the church.

“Every time I went, I would be angry,” she said. Sitting through dull homilies disturbed her. She walked out of her last one. She was a member of Holy Cross Catholic Church in Mt. Airy, but 27 years ago she and her family planned to leave the church to become Lutherans. Instead, they found St. Vincent de Paul in Germantown.

DiFranco describes it as the first time she experienced a community where people lived a life according to Catholic ideals. They were feeding the sick and clothing the poor. It was as egalitarian as could be.

“That good role modeling brought me back to the church,” said DiFranco. But there were still issues. Why did the church continue to fail to recognize gays’ right to marriage, for example?

In 1999, DiFranco enrolled in the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mt. Airy. She later was ordained in order to work towards equality in the church. In January, 2002, news of the Boston Catholic priest sex scandal dominated news media outlets. In June, 2002, the “Danube Seven,” seven women, were ordained on the Danube River by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests. The following year, the Vatican excommunicated the women.

DiFranco wants the Catholic Church to expand its thinking and to reflect the times. Numerous other Christian churches and other religions support the ordination of women. In ancient Greece, priestesses served as oracles at many sacred sites, such as the Oracle of Delphi. In 1981 the first American women became ordained in the Tibetan monk tradition.

DiFranco, a woman with a sense of humor, said the letter she received from Cardinal Rigali “was really funny.” Last year she had open heart surgery and decided if she died, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “If I Had a Hammer,” by Peter, Paul, and Mary, would be sung at her funeral.

She suggests that if there were women priests, perhaps there would be more widespread respect for women. Perhaps domestic abuse would decrease. As for the church’s dealings with sexual issues, “It’s clearly not their purview,” DiFranco said.

The Catholic Church is an institution where a majority of men who have never experienced marriage advise those who have. That type of perspective is considered a voice of no experience by DiFranco.

“As long as they [the traditional Catholic church and the Vatican] minimize our experience, nothing is going to change,” said DiFranco. “I’m just waiting for Pope Francis to call me up.”

For more information about the Community of Saint Mary Magdalene, visit marymagdalenecommunity.org. For more information about Roman Catholic Womenpriests, visit romancatholicwomenpriests.org.