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DETROIT -- It was any bride's dream wedding -- a packed church, a beautiful white dress and a palpable feeling of excitement and love.
But what made this recent Saturday's ceremony at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament really special was the groom:
Three women from metro Detroit were the first to become consecrated virgins in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The little-known vocation involves a commitment to lifelong chastity.
Laurie Malashanko of Plymouth, Karen Ervin of Northville and Theresa Jordan of Dearborn Heights, Mich., are now, in the words of Catholic canon law, "mystically betrothed to Christ."
Unlike nuns, they are not part of a religious order. They will continue to work regular jobs and financially support themselves, while being steadfastly dedicated to serving the church.
"The focus is on how to be in the world, but not be of it, and (having) this understanding of your role as a bride of Christ, and reflecting your love of Jesus to the world," said Ervin, 42, the principal of St. Catherine of Siena Academy in Wixom.
The consecration ceremony followed years of prayer and discernment -- and involved a bit of a learning curve for the Archdiocese.
There are about 250 consecrated virgins in the U.S. and 4,000 worldwide, said Judith Stegman, president of the United States Association of Consecrated Virgins.
The practice dates to the church's earliest centuries, when there were no convents.
But by the year 1139, as more women were joining religious orders, bishops stopped consecrating virgins who weren't part of those orders. The bishops believed that women would be better protected if they lived together in religious communities, Stegman said.
In 1963, the Second Vatican Council decreed that the rite of consecrated virginity should be revised. The revision took place in 1970 to again include women who were "living in the world," rather than just those in religious communities.
"That's why it's so misunderstood," Stegman said. "For centuries, we only had the other kind of religious life in the church (for women). People aren't as familiar with it."
Diocesan bishops oversee and administer the rite. A woman who has never had sex has to ask for permission and assistance to be consecrated.
There is no universal blueprint for bishops or candidates to follow.
The diocese of Lansing has consecrated seven virgins. In Detroit, Malashanko, Ervin and Jordan broke new ground.
"It was a little bit scattered it first, because it was the first time we were practicing this vocation in the Archdiocese of Detroit," Jordan said. "There was no set procedure or protocol."
A LIFELONG PROMISE
Jordan, 40, learned about consecrated virgins through a 2013 article in the Michigan Catholic newspaper.
"I felt like it was an opportunity to take my relationship with Christ one step further," she said.
The Archdiocese of Detroit tapped Susan Cummins, who was consecrated in 2002 in Lansing and now works for the Archdiocese, to mentor Jordan and the other women.
For the past few years, they've been meeting once every six weeks or so to pray and talk about the vocation. They had dinner several times with Auxiliary Bishop Donald Hanchon. Priests served as their spiritual directors.
The women submitted character references, a biography and a statement of intent to Archbishop Allen Vigneron.
"It's not a vocation you can just 1-2-3 get into," Jordan said. "It takes a lot of formation, study and prayer."
Ervin said she first felt called to religious life as a child, but was intimidated by it. She was open to marriage and dated throughout her 20s. She also visited different religious orders.
Nothing seemed like the right fit.
Then one day, just before she turned 35, Ervin was talking to a professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary who mentioned consecrated virgins. Ervin had never heard about the vocation.
"I had so much joy flooding my heart the more and more she talked," she said.
Malashanko, 41, who works for a publishing company, also had a calling. But she didn't feel like she needed the structure of a religious community.
"There were religious orders I loved, and there were guys I dated who were great, but nothing clicked until I heard about this," she said.
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GIVING 100 PERCENT
The idea behind lifelong virginity is giving 100 percent of oneself to Christ. Many consecrated virgins attend mass daily.
Stegman said 106 dioceses out of more than 190 in the U.S. have consecrated virgins -- and many of those have only one or two.
Some dioceses don't even know about the vocation and are perplexed at first when a woman asks about it.
But that's changing.
"Clearly, as it becomes known more and more, there's been a continual increase in women who are interested in the vocation, asking about it and becoming consecrated, especially as various bishops become more aware of it and encourage it in their dioceses," Stegman said.
One other woman in the Archdiocese of Detroit is in formation.
The idea of lifelong virginity may make some people snicker, Jordan said. But she views it as a sacred gift from the Holy Spirit.
"In today's society, virginity is often criticized, it's made fun of," said Jordan, who works as a French teacher and in the registrar's office at Marygrove College.
"To be in this world where there's a lot of sexual immorality and perversion, this is a great task set before me, but it's one I look forward to overcoming, and helping others learn about the beauty of virginity and chastity in this world."
Last September, Malashanko, Ervin and Jordan had one-on-one interviews with Vigneron.
"There were no promises at the end of that interview," Malashanko said. "He could have said, 'I don't think anyone is ready yet.' But that afternoon, all three of us were accepted. We set a date."
Wedding preparations began.
THE BIG DAY
The women sent out invitations that listed Vigneron, rather than their parents, as the inviter.
Malashanko bought her wedding dress online. She was drawn to its boat neck, cinched waist and chiffon bottom, details that reminded her of Jackie Kennedy and Grace Kelly.
Everyone picked out rings. Ervin designed hers, with a crown of thorns inside a white gold band connected to rose gold fleur-de-lis cross.
Most important, the women spent extra time in prayer and reflection.
On that Saturday morning, the Cathedral was packed with several hundred guests and close to two dozen priests.
Each bride clutched an oil lamp as she walked down the aisle.
Like any traditional Catholic mass, there were two readings and the Gospel. The consecration rite followed.
In an especially powerful part, the women lay prostrate as Vigneron and everyone in the church recited the Litany of the Saints.
Then, Vigneron gave each woman a ring and placed a veil on her head. He presented her with a Liturgy of the Hours prayer book.
Standing before Vigneron, Jordan, Malashanko and Ervin sang, "I am a spouse to Him, whom the angels serve; sun and moon stand in wonder at His glory."
Applause filled the church.
"I was very happy, very elated to be wedded to Christ," Jordan said. "I felt aligned with his virginity, his purity and all of his sufferings.
"To be mystically espoused to him, it was very joyful."
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