A quarter-century ago Ludmila Javorova was a secret locked inside another secret. She was an ordained Roman Catholic priest inside the secret underground church in Czechoslovakia.

More on Ludmila

Ludmila's Story
Becoming a priest is something she prepared for all her life

Did a Female Pope Exist?
"Pope Joan" may be more than a legend

"A Woman of Power"
An interview with Donna Woolfolk Cross, author of the book, "Pope Joan"
The underground church, known as Koinotes--from koinonia, a Greek word for a tightly knit group of believers--operated at great risk, barely beyond the repressive gaze of the Czech communist authorities.

In the 1970s and '80s, Javorova's story was as remote as information buried in a time capsule. In a sense, that's what the secret was. Javorova did not want it revealed. Yet over the course of one decade, the 1990s, American enterprise and determination--and chance--decided otherwise.

In 1990, NCR staffer Tim McCarthy was in the Czech Republic to write about the sweeping changes taking place in Central and Eastern Europe.

In September of that year, in a lengthy article datelined Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, McCarthy revealed that married men had been ordained priests secretly in that country from the 1960s on.

Even more startling, informants told McCarthy that Bishop Felix Maria Davidek had ordained at least one woman. But McCarthy's sources did not know who or where she was, and their story "could not be confirmed."

Despite McCarthy's first twist on the time lock, the secret remained. The woman at the center, Ludmila Javorova, did not want it revealed. She had her reasons, though she had no doubts about her priesthood. She knew she had been legitimately ordained, in part because of the circumstances of the time, by Davidek, a legally instituted and recognized Roman Catholic bishop.

In December 1991, The New York Times picked up on the story and reported that three Czech women had been ordained.

The next twist on the time lock had taken place.

Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick, then national coordinator of the U.S. Catholic Women's Ordination Conference (WOC) put together a small delegation to travel to the Czech Republic. Before they left, she learned there was a former Koinotes priest in the United States and contacted him. He knew one of the women: Ludmila Javorova. Her name was out.

The delegation, which included Quixote Center's co-director Dolly Pommerlau and others, went to Prague, then Brno. In Brno, 18 local people gathered to listen to the visitors during a discussion about the church in the United States. Javorova, unidentified, was present. Later that evening, Javorova decided to be introduced to the Americans. They urged her to go public with her story. She declined.

Four years later a second delegation went to Brno and invited Javorova to the United States for a private visit. The delegation was co-sponsored by the Women's Ordination Conference and the Quixote Center, a faith-based social justice center in Washington.

In October 1997, Javorova visited for two weeks. She was accompanied by an ordained woman deacon from Slovakia, the deacon's sister and an interpreter. Not a word of this visit leaked out. Among events lined up for Javorova was a gathering of Future Church in Cleveland.

Seventy minutes flying time away, in Hartford, Conn., Sr. Miriam Therese Winter, composer, professor and director of Hartford Seminary's Women's Leadership Institute, was invited to the meeting by her friend, St. Joseph Sr. Chris Schenk, the executive director of FutureChurch.

There Winter met Javorova, a tall woman, perhaps 5-foot-7, slender, quiet, "deeply introverted but centered, very present to the moment." Winter, with her work at Hartford in mind, took some notes, some photographs and flew home. She typed up the notes and put them away.

A week later, Winter rode the Amtrak to Philadelphia. After its New Haven, Conn., stop, the train was packed. Even so, Winter could hear people talking in a language she did not understand, yet recognized--she'd been listening to it the previous weekend. There, across the aisle in the same car, was Javorova and her traveling companions.

"Ludmila shrieked in delight, she was so grateful to see a familiar face," said Winter. "They were on their way to Washington, but they wanted to make a quick stop in New York, just to see it. They were babes in the wilderness. They had bags and purses and coats, and I said, 'Omigod, getting off in New York you're going to be dog meat.' So I got off with them, got their gear into lockers, but couldn't stay."