by Kristen Surprise
Worcester (Mass.) Business Journal
Sunday, 29 October 2006
What began as an organization for Catholics struggling with the politics of the Church became an international phenomenon of resigned or married Catholic priests looking for work. Rentapriest.com is one of the latest trends in the non-profit business world.
"It’s a free referral service; it may sound like business, but it’s not a business - it’s a ministry," Louise Haggett, president and founder of rentapriest.com, says. Haggett’s website, originally based in Framingham, began when she and her husband invested in the web database with a $10,000 sales bonus they received in 1992. The site, officially named CITI (Celibacy is the Issue), provides access to married priests who are willing and able to perform religious sacraments and duties, including masses.
"We’ve probably served about 100,000 people," Haggett says. She also says that the non-profit website has had over 300,000 hits in the last year and a half. It’s supported through an annual membership donation made by the married priests who are members, as well as funding from the site’s advisory board. It also receives donations from clients and others that support the organization.
Originally, the site was designed with disgruntled Catholics in mind. "They’re not upset with the belief system, they’re upset with the politics of the Church," says Haggett. Thanks to heavy publicity, however, the novelty of the site is now appealing to a variety of clients. Haggett says that the organization serves people from many different religions and beliefs, including Hinduism and Atheism.
The web resource has another target client: unemployed priests. The website lists contact information for priests under "God’s Yellow Pages", where clients can search by state and then by city or town to locate a priest in their area. From there, they can contact the priest to make arrangements for the preferred ceremony.
"Were it not for Rent-A-Priest, I would have no ministry," says Father David Kerrigan, a Worcester priest who withdrew from the Catholic Church in 1985. "There would be no opportunity [for resigned or married priests]." Kerrigan says he left the priesthood after the residing bishop suggested that he was too much of a "free spirit". He struck out his own, until rentapriest.com exposed him to throngs of potential clients.
The Catholic Church, however, does not recognize ceremonies performed by these priests, and is in disagreement with the organization’s ideas. "It’s like renting a tux," claims Harvey Egan, a Jesuit priest from Boston College’s Theology Department. "If you’re having problems with the institutional Church, why rent a priest?"
Others, however, feel that rentapriest.com performs a valid service. "[For] people who are in a situation that is not of their choosing, and cannot get married in the Church, this is a perfect alternative," says Irena Clark, Sales and Catering Service Manager at The Harrington Farm in Princeton. Clark has dealt with Father Ron Ingalls, a married priest who has performed ceremonies at the Farm, thanks to contacts made through the website.
Father Ingalls says that rentapriest.com has given him a way to continue his priestly practice. "Before, I was always a company man, and I had to represent the institutional Church and its agenda," he says. "Now, my ministry is entirely individual people, so I don’t have to represent any institution."
The public often views the organization as a form of protest, notes Haggett. Despite the opposition, Haggett says the interpretation is far from the truth: "We’re here for people who need us. Period."