Not Doing as the Romans Do

A woman's place at the altar challenges a 2,000-year-old Catholic tradition

The congregants of Corpus Christi are praying on borrowed time. Displaced from their Roman Catholic parish, 550 of them have assembled at the Downtown United Presbyterian Church in Rochester, N.Y. They sit upright in the shiny pews, unused to the immaculate splendor of the organ that frames the altar. But all the strangeness of the loaned space is quickly forgotten in a rustle of excitement. "Oh yeah, she's starting," whispers a parishioner as a sandy-haired woman wearing an alb and cropped green stole stands before the altar.

It is a stolen moment of authority for Mary Ramerman, one of many that...

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