Pastoral director will leave church that has thrived with her leadership

Coyle was 1st woman in archdiocese in charge of a parish

January 03, 2000|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

One day in December, 13 years ago, Bishop John H. Ricard phoned Sister Jane Coyle with a request that left her speechless.

Instead of assigning a priest to pastor Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church in Bolton Hill, he told her that Archbishop William D. Borders wanted her to take the job.

"I was stunned. My first reaction was I didn't think I could do it," she said. "It just never occurred to me in God's earth that I would do something like this."

She found she could do it and do it well, as the parish thrived and grew under her leadership. Coyle, who was the first woman to lead a church in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, has decided to move on. She will be replaced next month by the Rev. Richard Bozzelli, who is moving to Corpus Christi from St. Louis Catholic Church in Clarksville.

Coyle, 77, is technically a pastoral director, not a pastor. It is rare, but becoming increasingly common as the number of priests declines, for someone other than ordained clergy to lead a parish. Coyle is one of four women, all nuns, who are pastoral directors of parishes in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. The other three are in rural Western Maryland, where the clergy shortage is greater.

Being a woman leading a parish -- Coyle says more than 300 parishes nationally are led by people other than priests -- has led to unusual situations. "She'd go to those priest meetings, and she'd hold her own, despite the letters she'd receive addressed to `Dear brother priest,' " said Natalie Barringer, a former parish council president.

"In the beginning, people would ask me, `What do you do?' " Coyle said. "They would never ask a priest that question. You run the parish. You serve all the pastoral needs. You make sure all the sacraments are taken care of."

She does everything but celebrate Mass and administer other sacraments. For Mass each week, she invites priests to celebrate the liturgy. "The advantage is you had the opportunity to pick and choose a little bit," Coyle said. "When someone told me about a priest, I ask, `Is he good? Does he give a good homily? Is he a Vatican II person?' " referring to someone who embraces the Second Vatican Council reforms of the mid-1960s that modernized the Catholic Church.

`Great role model'

For many women at Corpus Christi, her presence as a leader spoke volumes in a church that refuses to ordain women.

"She's been a great role model as a woman in the church," said Patricia Fosarelli, an assistant to the dean at the Ecumenical Institute of Theology in North Baltimore, who leads the parish's liturgy committee. "I think she showed us that great leadership can be either female or male. Great leadership is not restricted to one gender."

During Sunday Mass, Coyle would make her presence felt. She accepted the bread and wine after parishioners brought them to the front of the church before the consecration. She would stay on the altar during the consecration of the bread and wine by the priest, Barringer said.

"And she always led us into the Lord's Prayer," she said. "Unfortunately, by church law, she can't preach a homily, but she managed one way or another to get a few words in.

"In no sense did she see herself as concelebrating" the Mass with the priest, Barringer said. "But her presence as a woman meant a great deal to that parish. In the present climate of the church, it didn't happen often in the church, but it happened at Corpus Christi."

Being in charge of a parish is not what Coyle had in mind as her vocation. She is a member of the Medical Missionary Sisters, whose ministry focuses on providing health care in overseas missions. It had been her dream, growing up in Atlantic City, N.J., to travel to other countries to help people.

"I was interested since grade school in the missions," she said. "In school, you were always saving your pennies for the missions. They used to call them mite boxes. The sisters fostered this response in children of wanting to help others."

After entering the convent in 1946 ("I had to wait until my two brothers came home from the war") and professing her vows, she served in administrative positions for her order, as a religious superior or in the novitiate, training newer sisters. She did two stints overseas, directing novices in England and in the Philippines.

In 1981, she decided to pursue a ministry that would bring her more in contact with people outside religious life. "Until I came to Corpus Christi, I spent most of my religious life either in formation in my community or as a local superior -- always involved in internal administration," she said.

She had been living in the convent at Corpus Christi for some time, taking care of a sister who was suffering from cancer. When that sister died, Coyle was looking for something to do and approached Corpus Christi's pastor, the Rev. Francis X. Callahan.

"I came over and saw Father Callahan and asked him if he needed any help," she said. "I didn't have anything specific in mind because I'd never worked in a parish in my life."

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