A religious haven for the estranged

Posted: May 09, 2008

The cockeyed iron crucifix inside St. Miriam Catholic Church in Roxborough is just one clue that this is no ordinary Catholic parish.

That box of yarmulkes down the hall is another. So are the presence of the pastor's life partner, and the wooden Torah ark behind the altar.

Yet as the Rev. Jim St. George crouches over a gold chalice and utters the familiar words of consecration - "When the supper was ended, he took the cup" - all those differences seem to vanish.

FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED MAY 30, 2008, FOLLOWS: A May 9 article in The Inquirer reported erroneously that the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem does not permit openly gay or lesbian clergy. The diocese, which has about 60 parishes in 14 counties, ordains gay clergy, and about 10 of its priests and deacons are openly gay or lesbian, according to a diocesan spokesman.

This is a Catholic Mass.

It is not, however, a Roman Catholic Mass.

St. George, 42, is a priest of the Catholic Apostolic Church of Antioch, a very liberal offshoot of the Roman Catholic Church.

Created in 1957, the Antioch church traces its line of bishops back to the first apostles and says its priests and bishops - male and female - are "valid" Catholic clergy. The Roman Catholic Church does not view such offshoots as being "in union" with it, however.

At seven weeks of age, St. Miriam is the little denomination's newest parish. It operates out of Congregation Mishkan Shalom's stone synagogue on Freeland Avenue, where St. George celebrates Roman rite Masses on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings.

"I hope to fill all these seats someday," he said after an evening Mass last week, gazing at the 300 vacant seats in Mishkan's main sanctuary.

So far he counts just 20 regulars. Most are former Roman Catholics who became "estranged from their faith," St. George said, but still yearn for the sacraments and liturgy of their childhood. "It's as if they had a tear in the fabric of their being."

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is likewise seeking to mend its own torn fabric. In recent decades it has lost more membership than any other major denomination in the nation, according to several major surveys.

"Overall, roughly one-third of those who were raised Catholic have left the church, and approximately one in 10 American adults" is a former Catholic, the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life reported in March.

Holding on to its membership has become an urgent priority for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has scheduled a discussion of the Pew findings at its semiannual meeting next month in Orlando, Fla.

St. George, a full-time chaplain at the Albert Einstein Medical Center in North Philadelphia, is not sure whether he left the Roman Catholic faith or was pushed away.

"I always felt called to priesthood," he explained last week, shortly before stepping into his stucco chapel on Mishkan's top floor for the start of the Ascension Thursday Mass last week.

But when he sought admission to the seminary of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Erie, where he grew up, he told it that he believed women should be ordained. He said Holy Communion should be open to everyone. He was also "struggling" with same-sex attraction.

"They told me I should 'reflect' on my vocation," St. George recalled, and he laughed ruefully. He translated that as "Go away."

His faith journey took him to the more liberal Episcopal Church U.S.A., where he trained for ordination in Virginia. But when he (with his partner, Sean Hall) moved to Allentown in 2005 to take a job as a hospital chaplain, he learned the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem did not ordain openly gay clergy.

"So I walked away" from the Episcopal Church, he said. "I told Sean I'll never be ordained. Maybe this is not my calling."

Then, a phone call. It was an Episcopal priest he knew from his days in Virginia. He urged St. George to look into the Catholic Church of Antioch.

Intrigued, St. George visited St. Mary Magdalen parish in Levittown, an Antioch parish, and was immediately taken with the liturgy.

His ordination within the Antioch church "took off" quickly after that, he said. It accepted all his Episcopalian training and ordained him a deacon in October 2006 and a priest last May.

The denomination's openness reminded him of his family, he told the four men and women at the Ascension Thursday Mass.

"I was adopted," he explained in his homily. His adoptive parents not only accepted him and an adoptive daughter, but raised eight foster children. What's more, he said, "my mother would bring all sorts of people home for dinner. We never knew who to expect."

It was her openness to strangers that became his standard for what the Communion table should be. "Open to everyone," he said.

Ellen Goldberg did not take Communion that evening, but she called out "Yasher koach!" - Hebrew for "Strength!"- at the close of the Mass.

"I'm not a member" of St. Miriam, Goldberg said, but she said she knew St. George from Einstein, where she is coordinator of volunteers. She serves on the parish's board, however, along with a Baptist, a Buddhist, a Methodist, a Lutheran, and three Catholics.

"I'm Jewish," she said, "but I am just very touched by his willingness to open his congregation to people of all faiths," she said. "He doesn't think anyone should be alone spiritually, and I wanted to support that."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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