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Not nuns, but women become 'brides of Christ'

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Wearing an ivory-white dress on a recent Saturday morning, surrounded by well-wishers at a Detroit church, Theresa Jordan awaited a gleaming ring to adorn her finger and to utter words assuring a lifelong commitment.

But the festive occasion that unfolded inside Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament was not the Dearborn Heights educator’s wedding — or even a special day belonging to her alone. With friends and family nearby, she and two other area women marked another memorable milestone: a Mass of Consecration celebrating their spiritual marriage with Jesus Christ.

The first such ceremony in the Archdiocese of Detroit’s history formally launched a devout life dedicated to chastity, prayer and helping others — inducting the trio into a seldom-highlighted group that officials estimate numbers fewer than 250 nationwide and about a dozen in Michigan.

“I’ll be living my life here on Earth, maintaining my job, doing everything I normally do, except I’m married to Christ,” said Jordan, who attends St. Albert the Great in Dearborn Heights and teaches French at Marygrove College. “It’s going to deepen my relationship with Him — my prayer life, as well.”

She and the region’s two other newly consecrated women — Karen Ervin and Laurie Malashanko, all in their 40s — spent years preparing for perpetual virginity.

But archdiocese officials say other candidates could follow. Those involved in the centuries-old vocation with different requirements than nuns or monks believe the calling still attracts a certain demographic.

“The more people are aware of this as a distinct form of consecrated life, of life that is set aside for Christ, we have more and more young women in the country who are asking about it,” said Judith Stegman, president at the Lansing-based United States Association of Consecrated Virgins, which meets annually and supports the women. “We have more and more people interested in it as they find out about it. They’re attracted to just giving themselves entirely to Christ this way.”

A “bride of Christ” might seem unfamiliar to many Metro Detroiters, but the rite is considered “one of the oldest sacramentals in the Church,” according to the association.

It is believed to be more than 1,500 years old and predates religious or monastic communities that were called to live apart from secular peers. But as those groups grew, “the hierarchy was not as inclined to consecrate a woman to live in the world,” said Sister Rose Marie Kujawa, who works in the Detroit archdiocese’s Office of Consecrated Life.

The rite fell into disuse while more women chose the communal lifestyle of monasteries and religious orders, Stegman said. It continued to be used for virgins living as nuns in monasteries, but fewer worshipers outside those institutions requested that and the church halted the practice around 1138 A.D.

Ages later, a revival or sorts emerged.

“Around the turn of the 20th century, women living in the world began to again request consecration from their bishops,” Stegman said. “At first, the request was not granted by the Church, because by that time it was expected that religious life would be lived communally. But, at the order of Pope Paul VI, with the revision of the rite of consecration in 1970, the consecration was again opened to women living in the world, thanks be to God.”

There are now fewer than 5,000 worldwide, according to the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins. Stegman estimates 10 consecrations occur each year nationwide, and 106 dioceses nationwide house consecrated women, but “many of those just have one or two or three.”

“It’s not widely known because, for many years, it was not a vocation that was promoted,” said Sue Cummins, a regional evangelization coordinator for the archdiocese who was consecrated in Lansing in 2002.

Though long devout and hailing from a Roman Catholic family, Jordan admits she knew little about the vocation until finding an article on the subject in 2013.

The Metro Detroit native had already privately pledged chastity and was heartened to learn that consecrated women essentially did the same — but, unlike nuns, without wearing habits or living in a religious community like nuns, supporting themselves.

“I felt like it was a personal call for me,” she said.

Per canon law, to receive consecration, candidates — who are admitted by a bishop — must not have been married or “lived in open violation of chastity.”

The vocation appealed to Ervin, who since childhood believed she had the heart for religious life yet feared seeming separate from the public.

Later, after having dated in college, she acknowledged a truth.

“I couldn’t fall in love with a man the way I loved God,” said Ervin, the principal at an all-girls Catholic school. “I had such a great gift of a prayer life that I knew God was it for me. I just had to walk away from what the world tells you you have to do in order to be successful or be normal.”

Eventually, she, Jordan and Malashanko met Cummins and worked with archdiocese superiors on their journey to becoming mystically betrothed.

There was no set deadline, but the group had to ready themselves for an irrevocable role that involves constant prayer and offering service to the church through various forms — whether helping sick people or on the job, Kujawa said.

“It’s very much a spiritual decision that only a handful of people can make and keep for life,” she said.

The vocation is meaningful for Malashanko, who traces her religious devotion back to childhood and has volunteered in jail ministry. The Plymouth resident says the choice to become consecrated “was crystal clear” after learning more about it years ago, adding that it symbolizes a cherished relationship.

“It’s just been a very blessed time in my life, and I see that as a confirmation that the Lord knows our hearts and he knows our deepest desires and he fulfills them,” said Malashanko, who works in publishing. “It takes work on our part to let go and listen sometimes and see where he’s leading. But the only thing at the end of doing that is really joy.”

mhicks@detroitnews.com