Monday, February 19, 2007

Latina prepares for Episcopal priesthood
Casper Star Tribune, Wyoming, US; found on epiScope (

The Salt Lake Tribune Monday, February 19, 2007

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Opportunities were limited where she came from, but Isabel Gonzalez never stopped dreaming. Even as a child, working beside her father in the fields of central Mexico, she saw herself serving God in big ways.

Raised in the Catholic tradition, however, the young girl never imagined what happened to her Feb. 10. Gonzalez was ordained a priest -- the first Latina priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Utah.

"I waited for this moment for so long," Gonzalez, 43, said before her ordination. "It means a lot, and I'm very excited."

She grew up in Tlaltenango, a small village in the state of Zacatecas, where Gonzalez said she was unable to attend high school. The closest high school back then, she said, was a five-hour commute, one way, from where she lived. She was one of 10 children, and despite the limitations in her sheltered life, she maintained her curiosity.

"I always wanted to learn more and more," she said. "My parents, they always encouraged us to do the best we can."

At 20, with her 6-month-old daughter in tow, Gonzalez moved to Salinas, Calif., to join a sister who had moved there. For five years, she spent her days surrounded by green onions -- first in the field, later in a packaging plant -- while attending evening classes to earn her General Educational Development diploma. One day, at the suggestion of a friend, she walked into an Episcopal church. Just looking at the female priest who led the service, her childhood dream morphed into something new, something bigger.

She married and had more children, eventually coming to Salt Lake City in 1994. She immediately began attending St. Mark's Cathedral. Within a couple years, after jobs that included one at a Midvale tortilla factory, she began to work full time for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. Slowly, patiently, between running errands and doing maintenance jobs, she worked her way toward something higher.

But it wasn't until the Rev. Pablo Ramos arrived from Mexico in 1998 to expand the church's Latino ministry that Gonzalez got her break. For years she pursued independent studies with Ramos. They'd meet on Saturdays, and during the week she'd tackle her homework assignments. And while she was taking on greater responsibilities in the diocese, there still was something standing in her spiritual way. As a Spanish-speaking woman living in Utah, her options for seminary training were nil.

"There existed no way for Isabel to move ahead with her theological studies," Ramos explained. "The church wasn't sure how to deal with a Latino and make the ordination process work."

So they got creative. With help from the Episcopal seminary in Mexico City, Ramos devised a curriculum for Gonzalez. On top of that, two or three times a year, she'd leave her family for intensive coursework in Mexico. Her writings and competency were evaluated by long-distance instructors. Meantime, she began taking English classes at the University of Utah to ramp up her language skills.

The first big payoff, after eight years of study, came in June when she was ordained a deacon and began serving West Valley City's St. Stephen's Church and its Latino congregation, San Esteban. And now, her opportunity to serve God is even greater.

Gonzalez, a mother of four, will split her time between working with the church's growing Latino ministry -- which will include hospital chaplaincy -- and serving in the diocese. Her new responsibilities will be a welcome addition, Ramos said.

"She brings a female perspective and a voice for the Latino community that's very important," he said. "And she sets an example for other Latinas ... to try to accomplish what they want to be."

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