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Woman gains a role in church, people's lives

Noel Fuentes felt there was 'something more to contribute.' Her parish job lets her do that.

September 10, 2007|Denise Gellene | Times Staff Writer

As a technical writer for a software company four years ago, Noel Fuentes, a divorced mother of two, pulled down a six-figure income, vacationed with her children at dude ranches and Disney World, and stuffed what she didn't spend into her retirement account. It was a comfortable life, but Fuentes felt unfulfilled.

So in 2004, Fuentes, a lifelong Roman Catholic, quit the business world and began training to become a professional lay minister, or pastoral associate. She took classes in preaching, learned how to comfort the sick and dying, and earned a master's degree in theology from St. John's Seminary in Camarillo.

On Sunday, Fuentes, 42, and three others were commissioned as pastoral associates by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony during a ceremony at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Fuentes was assigned to St. Raphael Church near her home in Santa Barbara, where she will lead prayer services, conduct graveside rites and perform other duties traditionally handled by priests.

Although they are common in the Midwest, which has long faced priest shortages, there are fewer than two dozen pastoral associates in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which serves 4.3 million Catholics in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The pastoral associates, who are mostly women, cannot conduct sacramental rituals, such as Mass, or hear confessions. But they can distribute already-consecrated hosts, take them to the sick and counsel the troubled.

Sister Carol Quinlivan, who as director of the archdiocesan Office of Parish Life oversees the pastoral associates program, said many of the lay ministers have spouses and families, and some have worked in the business world, so they know what kinds of problems parishioners face. For example, she said, two pastoral associates are widows who have been through the painful process of making funeral arrangements.

Before entering the lay ministry, pastoral associates were active in their local parishes, volunteering at parish schools or teaching in the religious education program, she said.

"They relate to the church in a way that is practical," she said.

Being a pastoral associate is a full-time job, and salaries are set by the individual parishes who hire them. Quinlivan said salaries are relatively low, which is one reason why men raising families are not drawn to the job.

Married men who want to serve the church have other options, she said. They can become deacons -- ordained ministers who perform some of the sacramental duties of priests, such as baptisms and marriages.

The pastoral associate program is a way for women to assume a leadership role at the parish level, she said.

Fuentes said that when she was growing up in Santa Barbara, her parents regularly invited priests and nuns for dinner, but she never felt drawn to the religious life.

It was much later, after she was divorced and her marriage annulled in order to free herself and her former husband to marry again within the church, that Fuentes started feeling "there was something more to contribute."

She became a lector, a layperson who reads from the Bible during Mass, and helped distribute communion as a lay Eucharistic minister. But still, she said, "there was an inner drive to do more."

In late 2003, Fuentes took a job as administrative manager at St. Raphael, assisting pastor Father Bruce Correio with the day-to-day chores of running the 3,500-family parish, while she tried to figure out what God wanted her to do.

She was working there for about four months when Correio suggested the pastoral associate program to her.

Fuentes' income is substantially lower than it was five years ago; she and her daughters, Megan Becker, 16, and Lisa Becker, 14, live with her mother in the house Fuentes grew up in. Megan said she didn't miss the expensive vacations or the condominium where they once lived.

"I'm proud of her," Lisa said of her mother.

For St. Raphael, Fuentes' timing could not have been better. The parish lost its associate priest in July, leaving Correio as the only priest.

He said that, among other things, Fuentes would help with graveside services in the aging parish, which averages two funerals a week.

"I feel a lot freer," he said. Recently he took a short vacation because he knew the parish was in safe hands.

What's more, he said, "people get to see ministry from a different angle. And there are some people who would rather go to her because they are not comfortable with me," he said.

Seated at a table on the patio outside the cathedral, sharing lemonade and coffee with family and friends at a reception after the commissioning, Fuentes said she didn't know what the future held but that she felt certain that, for now, this is the right path.

"At the moment, I know this is what God wants for me," she said.

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denise.gellene@latimes.com

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