Months after the death of the priest at a local church, a Roman Catholic bishop in Connecticut has taken the unusual step of placing a lay woman in charge of that parish.
Eleanor Sauers, who has a doctorate in theology and teaches religious studies at Fairfield University, takes over in January at St. Anthony of Padua in Fairfield.
Her official title will be Parish Life Coordinator, but Bishop Frank J. Caggiano has given her the decision-making authority at the parish, where a team of priests will assist her by celebrating Mass and performing other ministerial duties.
"Her responsibilities, as it is with any priest or deacon appointed as administrator, is to work with the parish community to develop and foster its pastoral vision and mission," the bishop wrote in a letter announcing the appointment, which takes effect in January.
Sauers is the first lay woman appointed to such a leadership role in the diocese and theologians say she is among a select few across the United States.
She has been overseeing the day-to-day operations of the church since the death of 59-year-old Rev. John Baran in March.
Parish life coordinators date back several decades and have mostly been used in the Midwest and other areas with a shortage of priests, theologians said. Most of them are men, usually deacons. Others are nuns and fewer are lay people. The vast majority report to a priest within the diocese, whose has final say over the parish.
That is not the case here. Sauers will report only to the bishop.
"It is a significant step in the growing role of women leaders," said Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, well-known author and consultant to the Vatican's Secretariat for Communications. "There are many women who run parishes de facto — for example, Catholic sisters who are parish administrators in the absence of a priest, or after a merger — but to have a woman officially running one, with oversight of priests as part of her portfolio, is a big step forward."
There has been a move across the nation to increase the number of women in leadership roles in the church since the 1990s, when Catholic bishops wrote a letter saying they were committed to such a change, said Dennis Doyle, a theologian and professor of Religious Studies at the University of Dayton.
Issues such as a declining attendance by younger people and sexual abuse scandals involving priests have served to push the hierarchy to modernize and could soon lead to women becoming deacons, he said.
"But historically, authority has still been tied in with ordination," he said.
Sauers said she understands that she is being viewed as somewhat of a role model and trailblazer.
"I cannot speak to the issue of women in the priesthood," she said. "But I can say that women who might be discouraged about the paucity of female presence in positions of authority in the Catholic Church might take heart at this appointment and give the church another look."