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.

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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."

Winter went on to Philadelphia. Not longer after, in Detroit for the Call to Action meeting, Winter was talking to the then-executive director of the Women's Ordination Conference, Andrea Johnson, who said she'd been trying to convince Javorova to tell her story. They were pressing, but not too hard. The American women tried to convince Javorova to at least put her story down on paper. They explained that if she did not, after her death it would all disappear as if it had never happened.

Winter advised Johnson to contact Crossroad, the publishing house that publishes Winter's books. "The one thing I believe absolutely essential," Winter said, "is that when Ludmila tells her story, she needs to tell it to someone who receives it in such a way they treat it as sacred."

As Winter candidly said to NCR later, "Look, I had a concern about our feminist agenda. I'm a feminist. Honestly and sincerely, if you're about your task, you try to do it objectively. Even though there's a certain feminist filter, you try to watch over it. I also think, even without manipulation, you hear things differently if your primary objective is to lift up or pursue women's ordination which is, of course, critically important.

"But sometimes," Winter said, "how you ask the question determines how you get the information.

"When I'd been With Ludmila [in Cleveland]," she said, "I'd sensed something very deep there. I couldn't put it into words. I simply said she can't just go ahead with one European male writer who's close to the Czech Republic who comes in and says tell me your story. I'm so used to women's work. You need to have a safe circle of supporters as you tell the story."

Winter returned to her duties, but the task she'd laid out stayed with her. A couple of days later she woke up in the middle of the night and said, "I have to do this story." That morning she called Michael Leach (then at Crossroad, now at Orbis), and told him, "You won't believe want happened last night." He replied, "You won't believe what happened this morning." At their meeting they'd said, "If only we could get M.T. Winter to write this book."

In August 1999, during six days of conversation conducted through two interpreters, Winter learned a little of what it meant to be a secret locked inside a secret. "When you've lived 40 years under totalitarian rule, World War II Nazis and then the communists, everything is secret," Winter said "Then you have this underground church movement. It has to be very guarded. You don't tell anybody anything they don't need to know.

"And these are life patterns," said Winter. "Even when your psyche wants to override it. There were so many things in her life she'd never talked about, never said aloud even to herself. There was no sense of now we start at the beginning and go on to the end. Her recounting was all over the place. Many times I'd asked evocative questions to try to get to the narrative, and not just theory. Even dates. I had to do a lot of external work on the time line: If German bombs fell on Brno this year, Ludmila was a little girl and probably that age."

In March 2000, Winter was back in Brno again. She decided to write the first draft while living and working in the culture. In May 2000, she was in Brno for a five-week writing stint. Halfway through came word that Winter's mother was dying. She made it home just in time, but could not return to the Czech Republic.

"Thank God for e-mails, and that we found two wonderful interpreters/translators," said Winter. In December 2000, Winter was back with Javorova checking the facts. Up until that point Javorova still had not agreed to publication in her lifetime. "I'd sensed in the fall that she might," said Winter, "and in December she agreed."

Oddly, that is not the end of the account that leads to Winter's book, reviewed on this page and excerpted on page 39. In Winter's view, the process of telling the story changed Winter, changed Javorova, and changed the context in which women's ordination is discussed.

Winter explains. "It is not easy to put Ludmila in a box, which we'd like to do. A stereotype--`She's a woman priest, therefore...' She crosses back and forth. She was doing things that were post-Vatican II way back when, behind the Iron Curtain, it just blows you away. And she has this deep, deep loyalty to the institutional church, and to the importance of fitting within that tradition: not as an exception. She has always understood herself as being within the flow of that full tradition, and that what they did [in ordaining her] was right for the circumstances in which they found themselves."

Winter continued, "Ludmila says, `If the bishop says I do not have faculties'--the right to perform priestly functions--'then I don't.' I pushed her on that. 'Do you really think they took the priesthood away from you?' 'Absolutely not,' she replied, 'I am a priest forever!'

"There's a difference, you see," said Winter, "between faculties and priesthood. Ludmila has distinguished between the sacramental--the gift from God, the call, the vocation--and the canonical, the authoritative. She says the bishops and Rome have the right to rescind her faculties, but they can never take away her priesthood.

"To me, in an age where these distinctions are often lost, it's kind of refreshing to see," Winter said. "And also heartbreaking to see that the tradition does not see how fortunate that she's the one who was ordained. Because she's been very circumspect.

In Koinotes, Javorova secretly concelebrated Mass with male Koinotes priests, but never presided. Most Koinotes members did not know she'd been ordained. Secrecy was essential for many reasons. Lives and personal liberties were at stake for all underground Catholics during that time. Today, as for more than a decade, she works as a catechist in her local parish and teaches religion in a local school.

Yet her life has changed. "I sensed a feeling of relief in her once she'd made the decision to publish," said Winter. Winter's life has changed, too. The Medical Mission sister, who entered the order in 1955, who published 15 albums of church music since her first, "Joy is Like the Rain," in 1966, and whose Crossroad books include "Women of the Bible" and "The Gospel According to Mary," notes what happened.

"Ludmila's story for me--though her priesthood is the entree--is in the power of her spirit. In her deep spirituality. I think what she contributes to the dialogue of females being eventually ordained--you see the male model, male priests, did not, could not work for her--is the way in which her deep dialogue with God is constant in helping her to discern what is her pact with God."

"She contributes a real depth to priestly ministry," Winter said, "a depth we don't often refer to anymore in our anxieties about delivering the services priests need to deliver, given the diminishing numbers. She brings it right back: What is it but a call from God? A gift. And that God uses whatever you have, whoever you are, with all your limitations. And Ludmila speaks honestly through that. I found that spiritually very stirring."

With Winter's book, the secret is out.

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