|Now-Fr. Patrick Allen is joined by his son as he prostrates in front of the|
altar during the Mass for his ordination to the diaconate.
It was barely a week into Father Patrick Allen’s new ministry when, in the course of taking his two children to activities in his nonreligious clothes, at least five people asked: So what do you do for a living?"
Allen smiles graciously, sometimes bringing his hand to his chest in a humble gesture, one that coincidentally shows his wedding band.
“This might begin a long conversation,” the James Island father says.
“I’m a Catholic priest.”
When his daughter, Lucy, goes to Charleston Catholic School next year, she will be the only student whose father comes not only for parent conferences and class parties, but also to celebrate Mass.
Ordained a Catholic priest July 7, Allen joins a small but growing group of former Episcopalians embarking on a new journey, one they hope marks a critical step down the long path to Christian unity.
They have embraced a new option in Catholicism that allows Anglicans to become fully Roman Catholic yet retain elements of their liturgical and theological traditions.
Allen is the second Episcopal priest in South Carolina to join the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter, often dubbed the “Anglican ordinariate.”
Pope Benedict XVI created the ordinariate, a non-geographic diocese within the Catholic Church, for groups of American Anglicans who wanted to enter full communion with the Vatican.
The result: Two weeks ago, Allen lay prostrate before the Most Rev. Robert Guglielmone, bishop of Charleston.
Those on hand for his ordination included his closest Anglican mentor and friend, the priest who heads the ordinariate and the once-Episcopalian families joining him to create a new Catholic community.
None asked, What do you do?
What he does today, fresh into his Catholic ministry, completes a circular life’s path.
Allen was raised Catholic in a Florida parish until he was 11. Then, his parents began attending an evangelical Presbyterian church.
Ever fascinated by history, he went to college unsure but with an eye toward teaching history.
He attended a Presbyterian seminary college working on his master’s in divinity, though not seriously considering the ministry, much less the Anglican priesthood. Meanwhile, a friend in Charleston invited him to work at Camp St. Christopher.
Allen served as head counselor and then assistant director of the summer camp for nine years, time that proved pivotal to virtually every front of his life.
He confirmed his desire to teach and mentor.
He fell in love with a young woman named Ashley Duckett, who also worked on the camp’s summer staff.
And he met future mentors such as the Rev. M. Dow Sanderson, a deeply intellectual priest who adhered to an Anglo-Catholic tradition that appealed to Allen.
Allen also discovered the Book of Common Prayer.
“I fell in love with it,” he recalls.
He felt drawn to the sacramental nature of Anglicanism and studied people including John Henry Newman, Anglican priest-turned-Catholic cardinal. Newman famously once said, “To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.”
Allen also met the Very Rev. Craige Borrett, rector of Christ St. Paul’s on Yonge’s Island who encouraged the young man to consider becoming an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Communion’s American province.
“I had successfully avoided the idea up to that point,” Allen says with a grin.
The weight of it
At the University of the South (Sewanee) in Tennessee, Allen was immersed in Anglican studies. He hung a picture of Pope John Paul II on his wall.
Looking back, it seems a prophetic choice.
While delivering the benediction at his ordination in 2001, Allen looked out over the masses kneeling before him.
“The weight of it came to me,” he recalls.
A naturally introverted man, Allen put his studies into action.
“Nothing prepares you for getting involved in people’s lives in such very personal and important ways,” he recalls.
Then-Bishop Edward Salmon assigned him to a tiny parish in Calhoun County.
It was the ultimate gift, Allen later realized.
He was near the parish Sanderson led at the time. While some other Episcopal churches were booming with contemporary services, Sanderson adhered to high Anglicanism.
Meanwhile, Duckett, the young woman he’d been dating, went to medical school at MUSC.
They married in 2003. She did her residency at Vanderbilt University. He moved to a parish nearby.
In time, they returned to her hometown Charleston where she joined MUSC’s faculty.
And Sanderson, then rector of Church of the Holy Communion in downtown Charleston, made a place for Allen.
“Holy Communion has a very unique role in the diocese here,” Allen says.
The parish adheres to the tradition of the Oxford Movement, which asserts Anglicanism’s Catholic continuity with the earlier, pre-Reformation church.
It was, in some ways, an oasis in the storm, a like-minded sanctuary to contemplate and teach even as the Episcopal Church faced growing divisions.
Cracks of schism were widening nationwide over the Episcopal Church’s ordination of an openly gay bishop and other theological issues. Local Bishop Mark Lawrence and many clergy in town supported a more traditional reading of Scripture.
Ultimately, even Holy Communion could not avoid the question.
When Lawrence and most local parishes disassociated from the Episcopal Church last fall, each parish’s leaders had to decide whether to stay with the national church or go with Lawrence’s group.
Yet, for Allen and many at Holy Communion, the choice was a uniquely different one.
Remain Episcopalian, or pursue a larger reunion of Anglicans and Catholics? Pope Benedict XVI had just created the new ordinariate.
“I already knew I would wind up in the Catholic Church,” says Allen, who by then had two young children.
He had settled into a realization that the Catholic Church was what it claimed to be: the church founded by Christ.
At first, he hoped the entire parish would convert.
“But leaving the church they grew up in was not a possibility” for many, he recalls.
Holy Communion remained with the Episcopal Church.
About two dozen members decided on their own to convert to Catholicism. So did Allen.
In a letter to his parish, he wrote: “Mine is a move forward to the Catholic Church, and I am nothing but grateful for my years in the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina.”
Still, it concerns him that the timing could be suspect.
“I didn’t want the fact or appearance of dividing the church and leading people out of there,” Allen says. “Instead, it was a fulfillment of the faith we held.”
At the end of last year, he relinquished his Episcopalian orders and no longer went by “father,” not in the religious sense anyway.
Six months later, at his Catholic diaconate ordination, Allen lay prostrate before Bishop Guglielmone. Allen’s 2-year-old son, Henry, ran up to lie down beside his dad.
Someone snapped a photo of the moment.
The picture is, in some ways, a reflection of Allen’s life now. Catholic priest. Father of two. Husband.
“It has worked out the way God designed,” Allen says.
He describes both his former bishop Lawrence and current bishop Guglielmone as gracious and supportive of his move.
He, along with his wife and 19 former Holy Communion members he calls “pilgrims,” were confirmed together last month. They have formed the Corpus Christi Catholic Community, which meets in St. Mary of the Annunciation in downtown Charleston.
When Allen was ordained to the priesthood, Monsignor Jeffrey N. Steenson, head of the American ordinariate, was on hand.
Sanderson and his wife were, too.
“We were so very proud of him as he began this new chapter in his call to serve God,” Sanderson says. “He and I share the same theological core values, and we will always remain close friends.”
Today, Allen is learning the finer points of celebrating Mass and assisting Monsignor Steven Brovey, rector of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. He’s also building Corpus Christi from scratch using a fully Catholic Mass with elements recognizable to any Anglican.
“All things that are good and pure and true in the Anglican church have a home in the Catholic Church,” Allen says.
Pope Benedict compared the ordinariate to building a house and including a room for cherished items from one’s former home.
There’s also a missionary aspect to building Corpus Christi that appeals to Allen.
“It is a seed,” he says. “And my somewhat unique status brings on those questions.”
So, what do you do for a living?