By Letty Lanza
Chapel veils and wimples – the Catholic Church in the 1960s was not just a place where women’s heads were covered, it was also a Church where women’s talents were seldom out in front. But all that was about to change as the Diocese of Beaumont was being established.
When Vatican II opened the windows of the Church to let in the fresh air of renewal, it also opened the door for a change in women’s participation and the way they were perceived.
It was in those beginning days of the Council and the renewal that followed, that Sister Esther Dunegan I.W.B.S., J.C.L., chancellor for the diocese, began her quiet walk into religious life and service to the Church. It was a journey that would not only closely follow the Church’s changing pathway, it was a journey that was impelled by those changes.
“I would often lay on the trunk of our car at night and stare into the stars. And in those moments, I could hear God’s call,” she said.
Sister Dunegan also heard God’s call through the sisters who taught her grade school and high school classes.
“But never did I ever imagine being Chancellor. Even after I entered religious life and was working at the chancery in Brownsville, I never pursued that idea.”
It was little wonder that the young Esther Dunegan never considered the leadership role. It was not until the ’80s that non-clerics could become canon lawyers and women like Sister Dunegan could start the path toward Chancellor.
Sister Dunegan says it took courage to step into the world of clergy.
“Most often lay men and women felt like second class citizens. I also wasn’t confident of my ability to exercise leadership. But that changed and the attitude of the clergy changed,” she said.
Though some clergy may have resisted the changes, it was two clerics who mentored Sister Dunegan. Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Brownsville sent her to study canon law. He later appointed her Chancellor of Brownsville. Then, in 1995, Bishop Joseph Anthony Galante named her the first woman chancellor of the Beaumont diocese.
Although Sister Dunegan says all five of the bishops she has served under have been very forward thinking, she also realizes that the increase in women’s numbers in leadership may also be due to the shortage of priests.
“But I think even if that were to change, we would not go backward,” she said.
That forward movement for women is evident in the make-up of today’s Chancery departments. In 1966, all diocesan ministries were headed up by men. Today, eleven of the ministries are headed up by women.
One of those is Rosalind Sanchez, director of the Office of Worship, who has had a front seat to the increasing role of women in the liturgy. Sanchez points to women now being able to act as altar servers and lectors as well as being able to conduct “Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest.”
Those changes came about well after the diocese had been established and the Vatican II idea of empowering the laity became a reality.
Sanchez’ journey like Sister Dunegan’s mimicked the growing role of women in the Church. Sanchez began her Church work as secretary. It wasn’t until 1998 that she was appointed a director by Bishop Galante.
Sanchez believes that because of Vatican II, the Church may have had the jump on the secular world.
“It’s my perception that in some ways the Church began to recognize the talents of women sooner than the secular world did,” she said.
Dr. Lorraine DeLuca believes that Beaumont may also have been more progressive than dioceses in the East where DeLuca began her ministry work 36 years ago. She is now director of Evangelization and Catechesis.
“In the East, we weren’t allowed to go to vicariate meetings or clergy days. Here the engagement of the laity is welcomed and things are less formal,” she said.
DeLuca has also seen an increase in women’s roles nationwide.
“When dioceses first created offices for catechesis, directors were all priests. Now 95 percent are laity and mostly women.”
All three women agree that their sisters bring unique gifts to the Church.
“They tend to resolve conflict through dialogue rather than imposition of a decision. And they see issues as many layered. They see everything as related and not in separate boxes,” Sister Dunegan said.
Sanchez echoes that idea by saying that women have a sense of how things are connected.
“We are more intuitive and relational. In some ways, we have a broader concept of Church,” she said.
DeLuca believes that another important gift is women’s willingness to serve.
“Most of our catechists and volunteers are women.” And then she jokingly adds, “I wonder what we would do if all those women ever went on strike?”