From August 1998 to December 1998, the Holy See and the institution of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole, was being tested to its limit. It is not an exaggeration to say that during these four to five months, a revolution was happening right here in Rochester, NY. During these few months, anyone who subscribed to the local newspaper, The Democrat & Chronicle could keep up with the almost daily occurrences at Corpus Christi Church. The parishioners of Corpus Christ Church held very close to their hearts the blessing of gay unions, the offering of communion to those who were not Catholic and the prominent role of women on the altar. Due to these practices, in August 1998 Fr. Jim Callan was eventually removed as administrator of Corpus Christi Church after serving there for 22 years. This set off a chain of events that would eventually culminate in the creation of the Spiritus Christi Church.
Today, Spiritus Christi’s main site and offices are housed in the Downtown United Presbyterian Church but they actually have their main Sunday service at the Hochstein School of Music. Chris and I struggled with this for quite a while because we could not decide on whether to tell the story of Spiritus Christi we needed to visit both sites or one or the other. Due to this indecision, we actually did nothing for many months until eventually I sent a random email to Spiritus Christi asking for a tour. A few days later I then received an email from Mary Ramerman herself. Now if you know the story of Spiritus Christi, then you already know who Mary Ramerman is, but if you have never heard of her before, then keep reading. Mary was very friendly and liked our blog and we eventually settled on a date to come and visit both sites.
Every Sunday, Spiritus Christi actually does their first morning service at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church at 7:30 am, and from there they go to do their main service at Hochstein at 9:30am. Mary invited us to both services, but neither Chris nor I felt that a.) we could wake up that early on a Sunday and b.) we felt up to sitting through two services. So we decided to get to the first service at its end in order to meet with Mary and Jim Callan in-between services and then go over to Hochstein with them. The other interesting thing about Downtown Pres is that it is home to quite a few Louis Comfort Tiffany windows and if you know anything about us, you know we really like Tiffany stained glass. We walked in to the main vestibule of the church and despite being late and wanting to sneak in unnoticed; we were welcomed by two church members. After looking through some of the literature on display and waiting for a break in the sermon, we then snuck into a pew in the back. We really only had to wait a few more minutes before the service did come to its official end, but before we even left the pew, we were welcomed by Father Jim Callan. We introduced ourselves to Father Jim and he then shared he had heard of us from Mary and would definitely be joining us in a few minutes but we were welcome to walk around and explore the sanctuary, which we of course then thoroughly took advantage of.
Because we may someday specifically tell the story about the Downtown United Presbyterian Church, I will only share a little bit about its history here. The Downtown United Presbyterian Church building that exists today was built in 1904 and was originally known as the Brick Presbyterian Church. The Brick Presbyterian Congregation however traces its history all the way back to shortly after Rochester, NY became a city and was created in 1825. For much of Rochester’s history, there has existed several Presbyterian churches, but in 1974, due to dwindling numbers, the First Presbyterian Church (today known as the Central Church of Christ, and is located across Plymouth Street from the Monroe County jail), the Central Presbyterian Church (today known as the Hochstein School of Music) and the Brick Presbyterian Church (the current Downtown Presbyterian Church we are sharing about) all consolidated – which if you know this area of Rochester, you know these churches are all 2-3 blocks apart, so this was not much of a stretch. Each of these three churches have their own unique history, which today is celebrated in one location at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church and several different placards sharing the Central Presbyterian Church history (which is where the funerals of Frederick Douglass in 1895 and Susan B. Anthony in 1905 took place) can be found on the walls inside Hochstein. When the current edifice of Downtown Pres was built in 1904, several stained glass windows were incorporated as well. Because Chris and I have now become Tiffany stained glass window snobs, we are not exactly sure all of the windows in Downtown Pres are Tiffany’s, but we know several of them are. Eventually Mary and Jim became free and came and found Chris and I and then the four of us then went to Jim’s office to talk about Spiritus Christi’s history. Mary and Jim also told us they were unsure of the history of the stained glass, but to contact a member of the Downtown Pres staff, which we will eventually when we bring you a more full length story of the place.
Mary and Jim were both very friendly and very willing to share their stories. However, it was also not lost upon Chris and I that at this point, Mary and Jim have told this exact same story for the last 15 years, so we were both very grateful they were willing to share it one more time. Jim explained to us that after 22 years of service at Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, he was removed from his post on August 13, 1998 by Bishop Matthew Clark, due to the Vatican having a problem with the fact that Father Callan was blessing gay unions, offering communion to non-Catholics and allowing women to have a more prominent role on the altar. More specifically to this point, Father Callan presented Mary Ramerman with an alb and half-stole in 1993 and by 1996, Mary Ramerman was hearing confessions. After Father Callan’s removal, the Democrat and Chronicle went into overdrive to share what was happening at Corpus Christi, which resulted in extra-large crowds coming to Mass there and these parishioners began to actively protest the Bishop’s decision.
Over the next several weeks, these parishioners began to hold “weekly, police-escorted, candlelight marches” in protest of the Bishop’s decision and then much to everyone’s surprise, Mary Ramerman was fired from her position as the associate pastor of Corpus Christi. According to the Spiritus Christi web site, “The diocese demanded that she remove her alb and stole and not go near the altar during any church services. She refused. She did not want to send a message that women were not holy enough to approach the altar or deserving of equal participation in the church. In protest of Mary’s firing, several women in the parish put on purple stoles, a symbol of women’s ordination, and continued to stand at the altar week after week. On October 22, Fr. Enrique Cadena, the other associate pastor, was granted a leave of absence by the bishop for ‘rest and reflection.’”
Father Jim shared with us that after he had been removed from his position at Corpus Christi, he was relocated to a church in Elmira, NY. However, after a few months of being out there, he came back in December of that year to celebrate mass with the Corpus Christi faithful. This action promptly resulted in Father Callan’s official suspension from the priesthood. Then shortly after this, the Diocese fired six staff members from their positions. These six individuals were basically the members of Corpus Christi that kept the protests moving forward after Father Callan and Mary Ramerman were let go. After their firing, these six individuals began to be referred to as the “saints,” which they continue to be referred to as today. This firing of the “saints” was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Many people had already begun discussing trying to form a new faith community. According to their web site, “By Christmas Eve, many people had decided they wanted to form a new community that would be inclusive. Disillusioned by the December 14 firing of the “saints,” the folks who had devoted their lives to serving the poor, parishioners wanted to move on and stop battling the diocese. On January 30, 1999, 500 people met at the Gateway Banquet Center for a Visioning Day for the new community. By the end of the day, plans were made to form a “New Faith Community,” whose spiritual leaders would be Mary Ramerman, Fr. Jim Callan, and Enrique Cadena. Mary became the Pastoral Administrator of the parish. The new community would rehire the former staff of Corpus Christi, and they would rent space from Salem United Church of Christ on Bittner Street. The New Faith Community held its first weekend masses on February 13-14, 1999. Over 1100 people attended. (Ten days later, the diocese declared that the members of the new community had excommunicated themselves.) On Holy Thursday, April 1, the community celebrated its first mass and consecrated the Eucharist. The mass was held before a full house at Hochstein Performance Hall, the former church where the funerals of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass were held. By August, the community had made three major decisions: to raise the tithing from 12% to 15%; to name the community Spiritus Christi Church; and to begin the first outreach, Grace of God Recovery House…The parish also voted to adopt a statement of identity: “We are a Christ-centered Catholic community reaching beyond the boundaries of the institutional church to be inclusive of all.”
Chris and I think it is worth pointing out, when at Corpus Christi, Father Callahan was the “pastoral leader” of the congregation, with Mary Ramerman being second. However, at Spiritus Christi, Mary Ramerman is now the “boss” if you will, with Father Callan being considered second this time.
Chris and I were simply flabbergasted after hearing this story. Sitting right in front of us were two people who took on the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, one of the biggest institutions in the entire world. How was Mary ordained you may ask? Well we wanted to know too. Apparently, back in the day following the First Vatican Council, there was a group of German, Austrian and Swiss churches that disagreed with the idea of Papal infallibility and went their own way, forming what today is known as the Old Catholic Church. These churches are not in full communion with the Holy See of Rome, but their ‘Union of Utrecht of Old Catholic Churches’ is in full communion with the Anglican Communion and a member of the World Council of Churches. It was Bishop Peter Hickman from the Old Catholic Church that ordained Ramerman as a full-fledged priest in 2001. In our impression, we were in the presence of history and in the presence of two people who challenged the status quo that has had long lasting effects throughout the world and continue to be discussed today by people who have no idea of the history that happened right here in Rochester, NY!
Chris and I easily could have continued to be awed by Mary and Jim, but they reminded us they had another service to facilitate and the four of us then packed up and headed over to Hochstein. Mary and Jim told us that Spiritus Christi is one of the few congregations in Rochester, NY that has actually seen an increase in numbers over the years. When Chris and I walked in to Hochstein, this was very apparent since the place was packed. There was a time that the auditorium of the former Central Presbyterian Church was the largest sanctuary in Rochester, but I cannot verify if this is true today; regardless though, there were hundreds of people there and Chris told me since he has been there before, this was quite typical.
The auditorium of the Hochstein Music Hall is quite modern and we actually thought must have been an add on to the original church at least in the 20th century. However, this is not the case and the current auditorium was added in 1891 and was the actual spot where Frederick Douglass was laid to rest in 1895, albeit with some renovation having taken place since then. (We would love to do another post of the Central Presbyterian Church / Hochstein Music Hall as well, so more history to come in the future!) The Spiritus Christi service was actually quite emotional the day we went because two individuals, a man and woman, who had recently completed their treatment at their respective halfway houses, shared their stories to those in attendance. Spiritus Christi isn’t just VERY involved in the spiritual and mental health of the Rochester community, in some respects they are the leader of such services. Spiritus Christi is very proud (and they should be) for their several outreach ministries and their affiliation with several other community services. It is directly because of Spiritus’s role in these outreach ministries that the two individuals were at Hochstein to share their success stories to the Spiritus Christi audience the day Chris and I were there. And speaking of the audience, the one thing very noticeable to us since it is actually unusual to the services we have been to, was just how many young people were in the audience, and these young people also were bringing their own children…it was actually quite refreshing.
After the service was complete, I ran into a friend of mine who is actually very involved in the Interfaith community of Rochester and he is quite a fan of our blog. We talked for a while, but then Chris and I wanted to go find Jim and Mary again to thank them for inviting us to spend time with them today. We found them again up on stage, which is an interesting perspective to see Hochstein if you get the chance. Both Jim and Mary are very humble about the work they are doing in the community and even more so about the role in history they have played not just in Rochester, but quite possibly in the world. We are very lucky to have these two people right here in Rochester who will continue to fight the status quo for the benefit of those who have little to no resources. We thanked Jim and Mary and said our goodbyes, grateful for the time they spent sharing their stories and history with us.