BOSTON (AP) – An activist group hoping to pressure the Roman Catholic church into dropping its long-standing prohibition barring women from the priesthood ordained three women on Sunday.

The group known as Roman Catholic Womenpriests held the ceremony at the Church of the Covenant, a Protestant Church in Boston.

The group said the three women – Gloria Carpeneto of Baltimore, Judy Lee of Fort Myers, Fla., and Gabriella Velardi Ward of New York City – are responding to a heartfelt call to serve the church as priests. A fourth woman, Mary Ann McCarthy Schoettly of Newton, New Jersey, was ordained as a deacon.

The Vatican has issued a warning that women taking part in ordination ceremonies will be excommunicated.

The Archdiocese of Boston issued a statement decrying the ceremony. “Catholics who attempt to confer a sacred order on a woman, and the women who attempt to receive a sacred order, are by their own actions separating themselves from the church,” the archdiocese said.

The group rejects the penalty of excommunication, saying the women who are ordained remain loyal members of the church, and will act as priests whether they are excommunicated or not. They said the church had a tradition of women leaders in its earliest days.

“We are a threat to the structures of the church,” said Bridget Mary Meehan, the group’s spokeswoman. “We are leading the Roman Catholic Church into a new era of equality for women. We are trying to change the hierarchy of the church into a more participatory and inclusive church.”

The group, which was formed in 2002, has conducted similar ceremonies in the U.S. and other parts of the world.

In 2005, nine women took part in what the group called an ordination ceremony in Ontario.

One of those women, Dana Reynolds, planned to preside over the ceremony in Boston.

The following year, the group held its first ceremony in the U.S. in Pittsburgh where it said it ordained eight women as priests and four as deacons.

The group has captured the attention of leaders at the highest levels of the Catholic church.

In March, the archbishop of St. Louis excommunicated three women – two Americans and a South African who were part of the Womenpriests movement – for participating in a woman’s ordination.

And in May the Vatican defended the prohibition on women priests, saying it was following Christian tradition.

A spokesman said the church doesn’t feel it has the authority to change the will of Jesus Christ. The reference is to Christ’s having chosen only men as his Apostles.

The statement followed what top Vatican officials described as a series of “so-called ordinations” held in various parts of the world.

Pope Benedict XVI, like his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, has rebuffed calls to change traditional church teachings on divorce, abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage and the requirement that priests be male and celibate.

Catholics who are excommunicated cannot receive sacraments. The penalty can be lifted if those who have been punished are sincerely repentant.

On the Net:

Roman Catholic Womenpriests:

The Vatican:

AP-ES-07-20-08 1813EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.