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Noozhawk Talks: Rev. Suzanne Dunn Pushing Boundaries of Priesthood

As a Roman Catholic Womanpriest, a life of faith takes on a deeper meaning while she works to bring new life to an old church

With her welcoming smile and no-nonsense short gray hairdo, the Rev. Suzanne Dunn doesn’t exactly fit the profile of a radical rabble-rouser. But this Carpinteria resident is one about 125 ordained Roman Catholic Womenpriests worldwide who are working to bring about a more inclusive version of the Catholic Church.

As leader of the Catholic Church of the Beatitudes Santa Barbara, Dunn and her congregation celebrate weekly Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturdays at First Congregational Church of Santa Barbara, 2101 State St. They honor the history and sacramental tradition of the Catholic Church while opening up the communion table to all seekers of faith, including gays and divorced people who are not allowed to partake in traditional Catholic communion.

“All are welcome at the table — divorced, gay, everyone,” Dunn said. “We do not keep out anyone.

“It’s such a relief to people to not be judged and not be told that somebody’s going to make the decision for them. We truly believe that anybody who comes to church is an adult and can make their own adult decisions.”

This simple welcoming atmosphere is a huge relief for many, she says.

“I had a woman who was divorced for years, and when I said everybody is welcome at the table she came to communion and just sobbed and sobbed,” Dunn said. “She said, ‘I was never allowed to receive communion in my own church because of the divorce.’ So I do see that there are people who are beginning to realize that they are welcome and we don’t judge them.”

In addition to weekly Mass, the church assists with warming shelters for the homeless and is in involved in other social justice issues. There is also a monthly group called “Disengaged Catholics Speak.” (The group next meets at 4 p.m. April 14, before the 5:30 p.m. service.)

“We are wanting to reach out to the disengaged Catholics and let them know we are here,” Dunn said. “We have no desire to tell them what to do. But for those who don’t know there’s another way, we are here.”

The notion that there could be “another way” niggled at Dunn while she was growing up in St. Johnsworth, Vt., a small town of about 8,500 residents. When she was 13, she recalls telling her mother that it didn’t seem fair that she was expected to take secretarial classes while boys were given more interesting options.

Dunn was never drawn to the convent, but she said she broke off an engagement because “it wouldn’t be fair to the man I married because there was a deeper call. It’s hard to explain knowing that at 20, but I did know it and it was a very painful and difficult decision.”

Instead, she became a missionary and earned bachelor’s and masters degrees in religious education. This was at about the time of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II, which took place from 1962 to 1965 and addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world.

“It was right at the time of this great upheaval in religious life that I started having some sort of vision of what religious life could be if we were free from some of the structures,” Dunn said.

“I was told ... the goals and wishes I had (for more equality for women) were valid and perhaps that’s how religious life would be developing in the future, but that it wouldn’t happen in the community I was in.”

Dunn was encouraged to think of transferring to what was then a fledgling experimental group: Sisters for Christian Community, a nonpontifical group that Dunn has now been part of since 1980.

“We don’t have a motherhouse, we don’t hold funds in common,” she said. “We are responsible for our own selves and planning our own futures.”

Running a group with a consensual model isn’t always easy, she admits.

“It attracted a group of very intelligent women who were leaving their own congregations because they could no longer buy some of the concepts of inequality,” she said. “At the beginning it was a little hectic because everybody wanted to have their opinion heard; they hadn’t had that opportunity for a long time.

“It’s taken us many, many years to get the consensus power flowing,” she laughed.

Dunn got her doctorate in clinical psychology from what is now Fielding Graduate University and had a private practice for many years before going to work as liturgical director at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Carpinteria.

“It was a good experience, but it pointed out again the limitations of what were ascribed as roles for women and roles for men,” she said. “Perhaps I grew in understanding the clarity of the distinctions being made by the hierarchical church in terms of what women were allowed to do and what men were allowed to do.”

She retired from that position about five years ago and was ordained in 2008.

A pivotal factor in Dunn’s decision — quite a radical move for a woman in her 70s who had spent her life in the traditional church — was a workshop she attended a decade ago called “Women of the Willing Disturbance.” The workshop was led by Margaret Wheatley, an educator and writer who sees the weaknesses in traditional institutional structures and believes that hope for the future lies in an increased role for the cooperative, inclusive leadership style of women.

“Her challenge was that we needed to be hospice workers to the dying institutions and birth mothers to the new ones,” explained Dunn, who returned to Santa Barbara and promptly formed a group of women who “made a commitment to meet with no agenda other than to listen to one another, grow some leadership and empower one another. ... Our eyes were so opened. That was the first time I was aware that there was an opportunity (to become a priest). Once again, that same call that I felt at 20 was niggling inside me, it was percolating. I decided to look into it and see if this is something that I would want to do.”

At the same time, “It was extremely painful because, for me, it was leaving a tradition that had been my mother’s milk, you know?” she exclaimed. “Because we were told at that time that anyone who participated in any of these (ordinations) would be excommunicated, which is a severe punishment that the church imposes.”

When asked why she doesn’t just join a more inclusive church, Dunn admits it’s a valid question.

“If you talk to a lot of us who have gone into Roman Catholic Womenpriests, we’ve all thought about that,” she said. “Some of us have attempted to do it. I thought about it when I was 40, but I couldn’t leave the church that I knew ... I still feel that I haven’t left the church, the church has left me. The essentials of my religion and rituals are still very important to me, and I think they are for many people who have left the hierarchical church.”

Even though the group is called Roman Catholic Womenpriests, men are involved.

“Our goal is not to make this a woman’s church, it’s to make a church of equality,” said Dunn. “We’re not out to proselytize, we’re not out to evangelize, but we would like to have people who feel that they’ve been abandoned feel that they have a place. ... We want to bring new life to the church.”

Noozhawk contributing writer Leslie Dinaberg can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow her on Twitter: @LeslieDinaberg.

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