MUNDELEIN, Ill. — On the bucolic Mundelein campus that houses a theological university and the largest Roman Catholic seminary in the U.S., there are 220 men studying to be priests – plus one woman about to join a small cadre of female faithful blazing new paths.

On Saturday, Dawn Eden Goldstein was expected to graduate from the campus’ University of St. Mary of the Lake with a doctorate in sacred theology, which will allow her to help train aspiring priests. The feat marks the first time a woman at the north suburban school has earned such a degree.

Priests and administrators at the university emphasize that Goldstein, 47, is not earning her degree from Mundelein Seminary, but from St. Mary’s, a co-ed theological school where most students are men. Still, Goldstein’s accomplishment signals a new direction in American Catholicism.

“I’ve found a kind of equilibrium here,” she said, referring to the cautious pride professors have expressed about her pursuit. “I’ll be glad to move forward, but I’m thankful for the experience of being here.”

She is earning the degree, issued by the authority of Pope Francis, at the same time Francis is pushing to raise the profile of women in the Catholic Church, most recently in his 260-page apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” in which he praised some aspects of women’s liberation, though he did not go so far as to say women should be priests.

Goldstein is not calling for women’s ordination. She’s not condemning celibacy, and she voluntarily took a vow herself. She’s simply pursuing an education to shape the church’s ministers of tomorrow and mentor women who feel called to serve the church.

“There is a lot more room for women in leadership positions in the church than has been allowed in times past,” she said.

But overcoming suspicion that she is out to alter church teachings from within has been one of many challenges facing Goldstein and other women who want to accept the pope’s invitation to lead. Only a small number of lay women have earned the church’s highest theology degree from one of the seven American institutions that offer it.

Some people bristle at the term “woman theologian,” said Goldstein, sipping tea in the seminary’s dining hall recently, surrounded by a sea of men. “People think ‘feminist theologian with an ax to grind.'”

As a convert from Judaism, Goldstein has found a sense of spiritual fulfillment in the Catholic Church that she lacked for most of her first four decades.

Raised in a Reform Jewish household in New Jersey, Goldstein became an agnostic in 1981 after a rabbi preparing her for her bat mitzvah told her questions about her Torah portion belonged to scholars, not 13-year-old girls.

But by then, her connection to God already had begun to fray. At age 5, during her parents’ divorce, she accused a staff member at the synagogue of sexually abusing her – an allegation the rabbi did not believe at the time, and one Goldstein did not pursue. Goldstein said she was abused a second time years later by someone close to her mother, leaving emotional wounds that one day would direct her calling.

In high school, she began writing for rock music publications and dropped Goldstein from her nom de plume. Though she never legally changed her name, she remained Dawn Eden for decades to come. After graduating from New York University in 1989 with a degree in communications, she continued writing about rock.

Battling bouts of suicidal depression, she found herself drawn to Jesus 10 years later and sought baptism at a Seventh-day Adventist church where she lived in Hoboken, N.J. But the Protestant denomination didn’t hold much appeal for Goldstein. Initially, Catholicism’s complex liturgy and lack of fellowship also turned her off. But the church’s position against abortion rights and fertility treatments reflected Goldstein’s political views.

In 2002, she launched a blog called The Dawn Patrol to rail against abortion rights, in-vitro fertilization and groups such as Planned Parenthood. During that time, she also worked as an editor and headline writer for Women’s Wear Daily, The New York Post and New York Daily News. The blog occasionally prompted words of caution from editors – and eventually cost her her job at the Post.

She jokes that joining the Catholic Church in 2006 appealed to her rebellious streak.

By 2007, she left secular media to work for the Cardinal Newman Society, a conservative watchdog that monitors Catholic education. The organization eliminated her job within six months, leaving her without health insurance shortly before doctors discovered thyroid cancer.

Knowing she needed a full-time job with health insurance, she enrolled in a master’s theology program at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., with the goal of working in Catholic college ministry. But instead, she started down the road to a doctorate in May 2010.

In 2012, she wrote “My Peace I Give You,” a book about how the lives of the saints could offer hope for abuse victims.

“It’s not enough for the church to simply be in damage control mode,” she said. “We’re not serving our mission as a church if we’re not providing spiritual accompaniment to people who are hurting.”


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