Janine Denomme's path has taken her from growing up in a Detroit Catholic grade school and high school; through studies at a Jesuit university; teaching theology at a Catholic girls' high school and history at DePaul University; through working in recent years at the Center on Halsted, where she served as director of youth services.
While she's had her ups and downs with the church, she considers it perhaps the greatest influence on her life. "It was really at the University of Detroit, a Jesuit university, where I was introduced to social justice through church teaching and a feminist interpretation of the scriptures."
Within the Catholic church, Denomme has been a lay preacher, led music ministries and offered spiritual direction. During a period of frustration with the official church, she helped organize an alternative Catholic faith community with democratic governance and presiders. Eventually, Denomme said, "I began recognizing some of my gifts, and that my calling was to the priesthood, and began preaching and presiding at some non-Eucharistic liturgiesthose led by lay people."
In the meantime, the church was changing, at least according to some women and their supporters who participated in an ordination of seven women as priests on a cruise boat on the Danube Riverand thus not within any particular Catholic bishop's diocesein 2002. While the Vatican declared that the women had excommunicated themselves from the church by their action, as did anyone ordaining a woman as a priest, the group known as Roman Catholic Womenpriests has grown to include approximately 100 priests and five women bishops. The first two bishops were ordained in 2003, by a number of bishops in full communion with Rome, the Womenpriests organization affirms, but their names have not been disclosed in order to protect them from Vatican retaliation.
"In the summer of 2007," Denomme, 45, said, "I went to a conference on women in the church, and I began meeting some of the women who'd been ordained. My own sense of vocation evolved over time, especially since my diagnosis with cancer last year." On April 10, she and Marty Meyer-Gad of Minnesota will be ordained priests at a Chicago service by bishop Joan Clark Houk of Pittsburgh.
Last April, however, Denomme's journey towards priesthood took an unexpected turn when the symptoms she was suffering turned out to be colon cancer. An early CT scan revealed that the lesions had already spread to her liver. Thus began a year of chemotherapy treatments receivedor delayed based on her fluctuating blood-cell numbersradiation treatment of one lobe of her liver, unimagined pain and unfathomable emotional lows, several hospitalizations, along with new questions.
"What does it mean to be a priest or minster when I have stage four colon cancer, and not a lot of energy for a lot of things, especially starting and building a congregation?, she began to ask. "So I see my biggest ministry as working with people one-on-one and continuing to journal about my health journey and spiritual journey."
Shortly after her diagnosis, Denomme began an online journal about her experience at CaringBridge.org, an organization offering free Web sites to those with serious illness in order to stay connected with family and friends. Denomme's illness and treatments often left her needing the care of others, especially of her partner, Nancy Katz; close friends; her mother; and her brother Mark, also gay, to whom she's closest among her siblings.
Her online journal describes the impact of her diagnosis, symptoms and treatments, with painful candor and dry humor. At times when she's in the hospital, Katz has provided updates for her.
Loss of control over her life and her body is something Denomme has tried to come to terms with. Rather early in her treatment, she wrote, "During my massage this week, two phrases and an image kept repeating themselves to me. One was, "Let it go," and it was accompanied by this image of releasing handfuls of feathers into the air and watching them float away with the breeze. The other phrase that kept repeating itself was, "You are loved. You are love." Two gifts for sure. So I am working on letting go of work, of feeling so responsible, of being in control."
The support of friends and family help her stay focused, as she describes her daily bath in another entry: "I want you all to know how much your thoughts and prayers mean to me.... [ The baths ] are a part of my morning ritual. As I lay back in the tub, I close my eyes, place my hands over my liver and colon, and call together all of your prayers, thoughts and energy that you have sent into the universe. I gather them in my mind's eye and they become a ball of white light in my hands. I then imagine the light penetrating my body, washing over me and through me, healing and transforming my body and spirit. You are with me every day. It's a sacred moment and I am grateful to you for joining me on this journey."
Denomme also reflected on the spiritual impact of her diagnosis in a series of meditations on the Stations of the Cross she wrote for a Catholic publication. She remembers the elderly women, mostly, who during her childhood walked around the inside of the church, praying and reflecting on Jesus' suffering and death at each of 14 "stations" depicting his final days and hours.
The fifth stationSimon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the crossreminds her of the support of Katz, who is an associate judge in the Cook County circuit court and Denomme's partner since 2001: "I cannot imagine walking this road without Nancy. In the early days and weeks of my diagnosis, she and I clung to each other, shaken and shattered. A natural caretaker, Nancy began accompanying me to appointments, cooking all our meals, walking the dog by herself, screening calls, and holding me when waves of sadness rolled over me.
Denomme added, "My own sense of loss engenders much of my sorrow, but I also carry a pool of tears for Nancy. We did not imagine this. None of us do. Call it the price of love. And so each day is a gift. Unbending in her love and commitment, no matter how this all plays out, Nancy walks beside me assuring me I am not alone." The support and prayers of many friends and family also accompany Denomme as she completes her journey toward ordination as a priest this week.
Denomme will be ordained Saturday, April 10, at Ebenezer Lutheran, 1650 W. Foster, at 1 p.m. See Ebenezerchurch.org for more information.