Gananoque, Ontario, July 26 -- Four women were ordained priests and five women ordained deacons in a ceremony on the St. Lawrence River Monday (July 25) that the official Roman Catholic Church considers invalid.

Three female bishops -- two of whom have been excommunicated -- presided at the nearly three-hour service that challenged the church's longstanding ban on ordaining women.

"I firmly believe that we need to break this unjust law and therefore change the system," Bishop Patricia Fresen of South Africa said Sunday during a press conference.

According to official Catholic teaching, male-only priesthood dates to Jesus' selection of men as his apostles.

It's time that changed, said Sister Patricia Bergan, a member of the women's religious community the Sisters of St. Francis and an administrator at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Syracuse, N.Y.

When Bergan, Cathy Gregory, and Meme Woolever, all of Syracuse, heard about the event, they decided to drive to the eastern Ontario town to see if they could participate. After waiting in the hot sun on the pier for more than an hour, they were allowed on the boat.

"This is great," Bergan said. "It's history."

The event was organized by RC Women priests, an international group of Catholics who advocate women's ordination. Participants and many of the witnesses at the ordination said they are willing to risk excommunication because they envision a church in which women can fully participate.

Fresen was ordained a priest in Spain in 2003 and was recently consecrated a bishop. Bishops Christine Mayr-Lumetzberger of Austria and Gisela Forster of Germany were ordained as part of the "Danube Seven," women ordained in 2002 on the Danube River and later excommunicated.

The ceremony began with the beating of a drum and two Native American songs led by an Algonquin woman. Waves gently rocked the boat as it traveled through international waters, which organizers say is beyond the jurisdiction of any diocese.

Several times, the crowd of mostly women broke into extended applause and cheers at the mention of "women priests" and a reference to the church hierarchy as "stuck in the harbor." Clergy, including at least five men wearing stoles that typically signify they are priests, processed down the aisle between rows of benches as the crowd sang, "Here I Am, Lord."

During the ordination, the candidates for the diaconate and the priesthood were called forward one by one.

"Here I am, and I'm ready," they each said.

Friends, spouses or relatives introduced the candidates and attested to their worthiness for the role.

"I know this is her calling and her passion," Don Reynolds said of his wife, Dana Reynolds, who was ordained a deacon. "When she said, `I do,' a few moments ago, I knew she really meant it."

The deacons received blue stoles and Bibles. The bishops later anointed the hands of the new priests, who also received red stoles and Eucharistic cups.

"It is with great joy we present to you our women priest(s)," Mayr-Lumetzberger said, drawing loud cheers and applause. Some of the new priests wiped away tears, and many in the audience were crying.

The newly ordained women called their ordinations a spiritual and political act they hope will bring about change. "We are one step forward to being the kind of church Jesus envisioned," Fresen said.

Some critics have said the women made light of the ceremony by having it on a boat. Not so, the women say.

The boat has long been a symbol of the church, they say. And water elicits images of creation as seen in Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and Gospel stories of Jesus ministering on the water.

"It's also to say to go against the tide, to trust God," Mayr-Lumetzberger said. "This is wonderful to see the church as a big boat. It is flowing and life-giving and moving. It's not fixed."

But Archbishop Anthony G. Meagher of Kingston, Ontario, the closest Roman Catholic diocese with jurisdiction, said otherwise: "It is profoundly contrary to both the spirit and the letter of the Church's law to attempt to create some geographical ambiguity in an effort to legitimize one's failure to be in communion with the local Church."

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