Black Catholic church welcomes female priest Woman makes history by saying mass.

September 23, 1991|By Knight-Ridder

PHILADELPHIA -- Moments before someone opened the heavy oak doors of the church for the Rev. Rose Marie Vernell, she paused to describe her feelings on this, her big day.

She took a deep breath, then said, "Lots of butterflies."

Vernell -- the first female priest in the 2-year-old African American Catholic Congregation -- swept through the church doors in a cranberry and black, African-inspired chasuble, the traditional outer vestment worn by Catholic priests.

Then she made history. She said mass.

Two hundred people came to see and share her day. They filled Imani Temple West in West Philadelphia. Some wore vibrant African colors. Many brought their children.

"This will be the first day that a woman will celebrate a mass in the history of the world," said Vernell, Imani West's pastor and a 50-year-old mother of two from Asbury Park, N.J. "It's kind of overwhelming."

She was ordained on Sept. 8 by Bishop George A. Stallings Jr., who -- as a Roman Catholic priest -- broke from the church in 1989 to form his own Afrocentric Catholic Church, called Imani Temple. Imani means faith in Swahili.

Based in Washington, the African American Catholic Congregation claims 3,500 members there and in Baltimore and other East Coast cities.

"The mountains are high and the hills are hard to climb," Vernell said, "but nothing is impossible." The congregation called back, "Amen!" and "Yes, sister!"

Vernell seemed to savor every moment of her first mass, a rollicking, joyful, sentimental, social affair that took more than 2 1/2 hours. She hugged those who spoke and wished her well, and several times wiped the tears away.

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