NEW YORK -- At the bridal shop, the saleswomen were puzzled.
Angela Scannapieco didn't want to register. Junette Romero didn't want a consultant. Both women were buying dresses, but not for a regular wedding.
Instead, they needed gowns for an ancient Roman Catholic rite so rare that fewer than 100 American women have gone through it: The Solemn Rite of Consecration of Virgins for Women Living in the World.
The rite formally affirms the chastity of women who are devoted to the church, but who do not want to become nuns.
"The woman in the shop says, 'OK, she doesn't want spangles, she doesn't want sparkles, she doesn't want a train. She's not getting married, she's being consecrated,"' Scannapieco recalled with a laugh. "The people in the store may not have understood what was going on, but I decided I was going to use every opportunity to tell everybody."
Romero walked around the bridal shop for four hours praying.
"I said, 'Lord, the way these young girls are fussing about $1,500 dresses, I'm going to walk around here and pray that God be the center of their weddings -- not the party, not the dress, but the actual church part of it,"' she said. "I was calling the holy spirit to enlighten these young girls' minds. I said, 'Lord, my marriage to you is going to last, but who knows what's going to happen with their marriages."'
The two women wore their dresses for the ceremony, which was performed Jan. 28 by Bishop Thomas Daily of the Brooklyn Diocese. And both now wear gold bands on their ring fingers to symbolize their marriage to Christ.
"Their calling is not to live in a convent or live a cloistered type of life, or wear a habit or be known as sister," Daily said. "Their calling is to remain in the world as lay people, but at the same time make this dedication."
The rite can be traced back to the year 500, but it was revived by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
The U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins, based in Oregon, has 45 official members and estimates another 1,000 live around the world. Consecrated virgins have no formal obligations other than daily prayer, but most also have lay ministries.
Scannapieco works for an organization that sponsors Catholic youth retreats; Romero offers a prayer telephone line from her home. Both women teach Sunday school and are deeply involved in their parish churches.
As children, both flirted with the idea of joining a convent.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Scannapieco, 43, was taught by nuns, so the convent life was "attractive to me." But when she was in her 20s -- the age most women enter convents -- "I was away from the church a little bit. I did the bar scene. I went through that stage -- 'I'm free now, I'm 21!"'
Still, there were limits to her partying. "I grew up with the idea that you didn't have sex until you got married," she said. "I wasn't planning on being a consecrated virgin when I was 20, 21. I thought, 'OK, it'll happen eventually when Mr. Right comes along."'
Then a friend asked her to teach Sunday school, and she loved it. She now works for Youth 2000 New York, organizing retreats for young Catholics. The wall over her desk is covered with photos of what she calls her "spiritual children" -- girls who call her "Ma," send her their college graduation photos, and drop by to join her for Mass. Her relationship with them, she says, was a "big motivating factor" in consecrating her virginity.
"Things like this tell them that it's OK not to sleep around, it's OK that sex is not a recreation," Scannapieco said. "They're discovering now there are other people out there trying to be chaste. ... Not that I want everyone to be consecrated virgins! We have to have babies, too. We need good Catholic families."
Romero wanted to be a nun growing up in Trinidad, but her mother forbade it.
"I have a maid!" she told Junette. "Why would I let you go to a convent and scrub floors?"'
Romero, who moved to New York in 1979, found other outlets for her devotion. A wrong number dialed by a woman in tears led her to turn her home phone into a prayer line. She counsels unwed mothers to reject abortion, and prays with the terminally ill.
"People walk up to me and talk to me and I find myself spreading the word of God," she said. "I always say, 'Carry yourself properly because sometimes you might be the only Bible a person reads."'
Romero, who would not reveal her age, works at an investment bank in Manhattan near St. Patrick's Cathedral, where she prays daily. But much of her spiritual life revolves around her parish church, St. Jerome's, where she teaches first communion classes and serves as lector, reading Biblical passages during services.
On a recent Sunday, St. Jerome's pastor, Monsignor Guy Sansaricq, congratulated Romero and held her up as an example.
"There are many young ladies and men who marry and give themselves to each other," he told the congregation. "But one can also offer his or her life and body and soul to Jesus."
The St. Jerome children's choir followed with a hymn containing the line: "Who will bear my light to them, whom shall I send?"
Hearing it, Romero noted that the same hymn was sung during the consecration ceremony. Smiling, she recalled, "I would scream out, 'Send ME!"'
On the 'Net: Association of Consecrated Virgins: www.catholicforum.com/usacv
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