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Psychologist fulfills goal to be Catholic priest

 Tom Altepeter, who grew up Roman Catholic, began studies for the priesthood but decided celibacy was not for him.  He readily would have been a married priest.  Now the husband and father of four is a married priest in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion (ECC). He started an Ecumenical Catholic Community, St. Clare, in Spokane in June 2012.

Tom Altepeter
Tom Altepeter started an Ecumenical Catholic Communion.

After graduating from a Jesuit high school, he entered seminary at St. Louis Archdiocese.  When he left seminary he studied psychology, eventually earning a doctoral degree in clinical psychology from St. Louis University. He taught psychology and had a private practice for 26 years in Oshkosh, Wis. 

Tom continued to be involved in the Catholic Church and served on the board for Oshkosh’s unified Catholic school system.

In that region, the priest shortage meant churches were consolidating and closing, he said.  In six months, six churches consolidated into one in Fond du Lac, Wis. Because no building was big enough for all the parishioners, the bishop raised $18 million from the laity to build a new building, said Tom, who was frustrated knowing there were women and married men willing to serve. 

Then, while searching online for progressive, alternative Catholic churches, he learned of the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.  He reconnected with a friend and former mentor, Frank, who had been a Roman Catholic priest for 18 years and was now a pastor of an Ecumenical Catholic Community. 

“We chatted for several months.  It sounded like what my wife and I wanted,” said Tom, who then finished a master’s degree in spirituality at Loyola to prepare for ordination in the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. 

As a deacon before he was ordained a priest, he started a church in Wisconsin.

When his wife, Carla, had an opportunity to move to Spokane for a job change, he came and started an Ecumenical Catholic Community.  They began meeting in homes.  They now meet at the SNAP building’s conference room, previously the chapel of the former Dominican Convent at 3102 W. Ft. Wright Dr.

Tom offered background on the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.  Its roots go back to 1870 when Vatican I declared the Pope infallible and with universal jurisdiction.

“Lay people and clergy who considered the Pope fallible were told to leave,” Tom said. “A group in Germany, Austria and Spain left the Roman Catholic Church and joined the Union of Utrecht, which formed 200 years before.  The Church of Utrecht had started that autonomous diocese over a disagreement with Rome about the election of their bishop.

“They were known as the Old Catholic Tradition, because they did not accept the infallibility of the pope,” Tom said, “but they had the same theology and sacraments, and retained apostolic succession.”

They believed Jesus was human and divine, and believed in the virgin birth, he said. They also ordained women and married men.

“Before about 1140, priests had married, but canon law preferred that they not marry,” he said. 

After the Union of Utrecht separated from Rome, participants looked at the disciplines and eventually decided to ordain women and married men.

“We also accept gays and lesbians and do not require an annulment after a divorce for someone to remarry,” said Tom.

Missionaries came to the United States to start the Old Catholic Communion in the early 1900s.  There has been one in Wisconsin for 20 years, he said.

In the 1990s, a handful of communities came together to form a larger group to support each other and gain visibility.  

In 2003, six communities formed the Ecumenical Catholic Communion.  It is part of the extended family of the Old Catholic Church, but not part of the structure, he said.  In the U.S. there are also small groups of the Old Catholic Tradition.  Given its roots, priests are ordained in apostolic succession, he added.

Now there are 50 communities, with four in Europe.  The biggest is in Southern California, a predominantly Hispanic community of 1,500.  There are now six in the Denver region, with the largest about 500.  Orange, Calif., is home to the presiding bishop.

“We prefer to have a small community over a large one, because it assures more authentic community,” Tom said.  When a community reaches 200 to 400, we encourage it to split.”

In Spokane, 75 people belong to the St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community.  The average attendance at services is 40, ranging from age three to 91.  Most are in their 50s and 60s.  Several have known each other for 30 years, and others just met.

“My goal is to provide a ‘homeless shelter’ for the spiritually homeless,” he said, noting that in Wisconsin half of Catholics do not attend Mass.  “Most who attend here are former Roman Catholics, plus some from other churches.  Most are progressive Roman Catholics who want the church to be more in line with the vision of Vatican II.

“I was a successful psychologist and now find it a gift to move back into a ministry I thought I would not have the opportunity to do,” Tom said.  “I was serving people, but felt a call to do this.

“The most important parts of continued spiritual development are for people to be involved in outreach with people around us in need,” he said.  “We have drawn people who are already involved, have identified community efforts and encourage individual efforts.

“From the start, we have set aside 10 percent of funds that come in to help support local ministries such as Our Place and Transitions,” said Tom, who is also involved with the Odyssey Youth Center.  “As we grow as a community, we will do more, but will also be careful not to over-extend ourselves.”

Tom connects with the Progressive Pastors group that meets to study the weekly liturgical texts.  He has also connected with Alan Eschenbacher, pastor of All Saints Lutheran, about starting a mental health chaplaincy.

“Our culture mitigates against health emotionally and spiritually.  We emphasize quick and easy solutions to deep and complex problems,” Tom said.  “The normal range of human experience is broad, but we think in narrow terms—men and women, straight and gay, old and young.  We think normal is where we are.

“I have seen diversity in my career and in the church.  To me it comes down to compassion for dealing with people who are different,” he said.

“There is room here for everyone.  We need to learn to accommodate to and accept everyone,” he said.  “My work with individual adults has many spiritual dimensions. I have helped many identify and deal with anxiety, depression, guilt and shame about what they have done that is not acceptable.

“We invite people to a different frame of reference about life, God and culture.  None of us is perfect.  One person’s approach is not the only way,” he said.

For information, call 361-0463 or visit www.stclareecc.com.





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