A new church is slowly taking shape in Eden Prairie.
It features many of the traditional elements of the Roman Catholic denomination. Still, it includes some striking differences, including being led by a woman priest.
However, before you start thinking this is some spinoff, dissent movement within the existing Roman Catholic church, think again. It’s not.
Eden Prairie’s Charis Ecumenical Catholic Community (ECC) is the first ECC church in Minnesota.
The church follows the principles of Ecumenical Catholicism.
According to Charis’ website, it is one of many expressions of “the ancient, undivided and apostolic Catholic faith,” where the clergy marry, women are ordained, and the sacraments are available to persons of all orientations.
“We are more akin to the Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians,” explained longtime Eden Prairie resident Trish Vanni, Charis’ priest and pastoral leader. “We trace our roots to a European post-Reformation break in the Netherlands. So, we are not in any way claiming to be Roman Catholic, although we hold the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, in esteem.”
Vanni brings an extensive theological background to the position. She graduated from Georgetown University, received her master’s of divinity at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., and a Ph.D. at the Graduate Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif.
‘Where was I called to be’
Originally from New Jersey, she moved to Eden Prairie in 1997 to start the Leaven Center at Eden Prairie’s Pax Christi Catholic Community Church.
The center was a project designed to identify those Catholic parishes in the U.S. that had “most fully realized the vision of Vatican II” and establish a network with those churches to share best practices, Vanni said.
She was also a long-time lay preacher at Pax Christi.
Additionally, Vanni led a Lilly Endowment-Funded Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership Project and did a stint in Catholic publishing. She also teaches part-time at St. Catherine University in St. Paul.
She and her sculptor husband Peter have three adult children.
After many years of working in these various roles, Vanni said she entered a period of discernment. She concluded that she really missed “parish life and leadership” and reflected on “where was I called to be.”
At the same time, she struggled with a growing list of disagreements she had with the Roman Catholic system. That included its treatment of the LGBTQ community and a range of other “exclusionary practices of Roman Catholicism.”
It’s no secret, Vanni said, that many of “the folks in the pews” in Catholic churches everywhere have left the church over various issues.
She began exploring independent Catholic churches and the Independent Sacramental Movement, which, according to sources, is a loosely affiliated group of individuals and so-called micro-denominations. Those are not a part of more traditional denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church or Anglican/Episcopal Church.
After conducting research and visiting various places, she found the ECC.
“I have to say, from the first time I was in Mass with an ECC community, it was crystal clear to me that I had found my people.”
As mentioned, in the ECC, the clergy marry, women are ordained, and the sacraments are available to persons of all orientations.
The worship and prayer rituals are quite similar to those one would find in a mainstream Roman Catholic Mass.
For example, at a recent Charis Mass, a robed Vanni opened with the sign of the cross, led familiar prayers such as the Our Father/Lord’s Prayer, and presided over communion.
In addition, ECC churches are connected to the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, an independent Catholic church with members following the Catholic tradition without being in communion with the Bishop in Rome. Nearly 40 U.S. ECC churches are currently listed on the organization’s website.
One ECC element is more like some protestant denominations: ECC churches, according to Vanni, require that clergy be called by a community or congregation to be ordained.
This is different from the Roman system. An individual can decide to be called, goes to the seminary, gets a degree, and then is placed.
A new church emerges
Vanni did outreach to other people she knew in the area who were having issues with the Roman Catholic denomination and were searching for other faith options.
The group of about 20 met periodically, eventually deciding, unanimously, to start an ECC church.
The community “called” Vanni. First, she was a deacon, then a priest. The group chose the name Charis, from the Greek word/name that translates to grace, goodwill, loving-kindness, and favor.
The group started praying together in 2017 on the patio of Vanni’s home, then tried out various spaces before settling on what had been office space in EP’s Golden Triangle area.
The group used this space for about 2-1/2 years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, moving the group to remote worship via Zoom. It gave up the space and finally started meeting in person again early this past summer, using space at EP’s United Methodist Church.
That arrangement ends soon, so the community is now in the process of finding a new location, “ideally with another church” that Charis can collaborate with, said Vanni. For now, there are no plans to build a facility.
Membership has steadily increased.
In 2017, Charis started with about 20 members. It now totals 60, with an average of 20 to 25 attending Mass each Sunday, some in person and some on Zoom. The church is totally funded by member contributions.
What’s the appeal of this new faith community? Charis members have joined for a variety of reasons.
“I have been interested in a Catholic Church that would ordain women, allow priests to be married, yet keep many of the Catholic rituals and Christ-centered support of our world that I grew up with,” said Eden Prairie resident Sally Kline.
When Vanni began gathering people to start a new way of worshipping as a Catholic, Kline was immediately on board. She serves on Charis’ Council.
“I actually joined Charis from central Massachusetts,” said Brian Ashmankas, who regularly participates in Charis Mass via Zoom.
Ashmankas is now an associate pastor for the virtual portion of the Charis community.
“Growing up Catholic my whole life, I found this Zoom gathering to be more participatory, interactive, and engaging than most in-person Masses I’ve attended, which often take the form of priest and spectators rather than priest and participants,” he said.
Ultimately, what it comes down to for Vanni is that the Gospels are good news: transformative, powerful, beautiful.
“I know that in this time and in this place, we need this good news,” she said. “I’m hoping that as people get to know us and find us, they’ll come check us out and pray with us and really ask themselves the questions, ‘Am I fed here? Am I empowered here? Can I serve the world by being here?'”
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