by Dennis Dalman
For as long as she can remember, Bernie Sykora of Sartell wanted to be a priest. When she was a little girl playing in her mother’s hollyhock garden, she would pretend the cup-shaped flowers were little chalices, and she would use them in her play-imitation of saying the Catholic Mass.
But dreaming was one thing, reality quite another. Sykora knew all too well that 2,000 years of Catholic tradition would not suddenly one day allow women to serve as priests. She knew that so well, in fact, she never mentioned to anyone else how much she longed to be a priest.
Now 80, Sykora’s dream is about to come true. At 1 p.m. Sunday, June 23, Sykora and two other women will be ordained at St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Cloud. Bishop Regina Nicolosi of Red Wing will officiate at the ordination. The other two women are Corene Besetzeny of Red Wing and Martha Sherman of Salem, S.D. Fifteen women priests will attend the ceremony.
It is the first time in history women priests will be ordained in the St. Cloud area.
However, Sykora, with her long-time knowledge of 2,000 years of Catholic tradition, knows the ordination of women is considered virtually an act of rebellion by many traditionalists. The Holy See (the Vatican in Rome, headquarters of Catholicism) does not recognize women priests as legitimate. In fact, the women involved in the “Womenpriest” movement, as it’s known, have been excommunicated. That is, they can attend Mass, but they cannot receive the holy sacraments, such as communion.
Despite official disapproval, Sykora and other women are undeterred. They intend to forge ahead with more women priests, more women bishops and more women ordinations. In 2002, the Womenpriest movement began when male bishops ordained women priests on a barge in the middle of the Danube River in Germany. That historic action Sykora and others consider a part of the Christian “Apostolic succession,” in which, through history, bishops consecrate others in a long series that extends back to the apostles of Jesus Christ.
“I’m looking forward to being ordained,” Sykora said. “It’s something I’ve wanted all my life. It was in my mind all my life. I always thought inside myself, ‘I can do that’ ever since I played in my mother’s hollyhock garden in Redwood County, when I was growing up on a farm.”
It wasn’t until a few years ago, when Sykora attended the ordination of Mary Smith, that she realized becoming a priest was possible for her, too, even if the Vatican did not give its official blessing. Smith, who lives in the Twin Cities, is a leader of the Womenpriest movement. After Sykora met Smith and heard about plans to ordain her, Sykora offered her apartment in Sartell’s Grand View Estates as a place for the ordination. But, through word of mouth, interest was so keen about the coming ordination Sykora sought out a larger gathering place. She thought about hosting the gathering in a large gathering room at her apartment complex but was told the room was only for family gatherings. Then she checked out churches in St. Cloud. Her offer was rejected again and again, but finally one church, St. John’s Episcopal, not only welcomed the women to use the building as an ordination site but also allowed the women to hold Womenpriest Masses once a month at the church.
It was a long journey along the road of Sykora’s devout Catholicism to the point of her becoming a priest. Sykora was educated first at the Mankato Good Council Academy, then studied for a year at the College of St. Benedict. She then spent five years with the Maryknoll Sisters Order in New York. She worked in Minneapolis, taught school in Redwood Falls, met the man she married and had four children. For 23 years, Sykora was a special-education teacher for the St. Cloud School District. Her husband, Donald, died in 2007. Her four grown children are very supportive of her ordination plans.
Sykora is looking forward to June 23, which she said will be a “glorious” day.
“I’ve asked myself, ‘Why, at my age?’, but then I realized it’s something I’ve wanted all my life. At first, I resisted the idea as being foolish at my age. I was thinking my life’s work should be over.”
However, Sykora’s involvement in the Womenpriest movement, starting a few years ago, helped her change her mind and made her eager to be ordained.
It is estimated there are about 150 ordained female Catholic priests worldwide.
“If women can govern countries, we can certainly say the Mass and baptize babies,” Sykora said.
Ordination requires a priest candidate to have a master’s or doctorate degree in theology, but because of Sykora’s age, that requirement was waived. Sykora does have a master’s degree, but it’s in education, not theology. She is currently taking online classes in theology, even though in her case it’s not required.
Sykora said she has no idea if the Vatican will ever approve of the ordination of women as priests.
“Who knows what will happen in the future?” she said. “But we will do what we need to do today. Will this Womenpriest movement survive? If this is of God, it will survive.”
Dalman was born and raised in South St. Cloud, graduated from St. Cloud Tech High School, then graduated from St. Cloud State University with a degree in English (emphasis on American and British literature) and mass communications (emphasis on print journalism). He studied in London, England for a year (1980-81) where he concentrated on British literature, political science, the history of Great Britain and wrote a book-length study of the British writer V.S. Naipaul. Dalman has been a reporter and weekly columnist for more than 30 years and worked for 16 of those years for the Alexandria Echo Press.