As a child, Isabel Gonzales knew she wanted to be a priest someday. If she ever expressed her desire out loud, no doubt fellow villagers in her small hometown in Central Mexico were amused.

They may have thought she was simply too young to understand: Women can't be priests in the Catholic Church of which she was a part.

Besides, she worked in the fields with her father, without the privileges of social class that can provide a path to the seminary.

But she held on to the dream so tightly, believed in it so fully, and worked at it so diligently, that today — inside St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in West Valley City — the Right Rev. Carolyn Tanner Irish and other Episcopal clergy will lay their hands on her head in a prayer of consecration and make that dream come true.

Gonzales will be the first Latina priest ordained not only within Utah's Episcopal Diocese, but possibly in the history of Utah.

Asked how she feels about becoming a mentor, and something of a role model, for many local Latinas, she smiles broadly and answers simply: "Good."

Soft-spoken and to-the-point, she will likely lead by example more than anything else. "She doesn't speak with a very loud voice, but people always listen," said the Rev. Pablo Ramos, canon for Latino ministries within the diocese. Though many local Mexicans were raised Catholics and don't have experience with female clergy, "I think she has a lot of respect within the Latino community. ... I've never heard any negative comments about having a woman priest," the Rev. Ramos said.

While some come to the clergy with lots of letters trailing their names, Gonzales never attended a traditional Christian seminary. In fact, she didn't attend seminary at all and didn't fit "within the standard guidelines for the seminary trained process," according to a press release announcing her ordination.

Instead, "a new process was developed that allowed her to complete theological education and to fulfill the requirements and canons of the church."

She came to Utah's Episcopal Diocese after 10 years in California, where she got a job in a vegetable packaging plant when her first daughter was only 6 months old. Working the fields of Tlaltenango, Zacatecas, Mexico, as a child with her father, she was familiar with the ways of agriculture: planting, watering, weeding, harvesting. They were lessons she applied in California, when she immigrated "without papers" to work in the fields.

She became a permanent resident in 1987, keeping her focus on the clergy and working to earn her GED when she wasn't packing vegetables. She found someone to watch her baby and took classes at night.

She first attended an Episcopal church in Salinas, so when she and her family moved to Salt Lake City in 1994, she sought out a church home and began attending St. Mark's Cathedral. Her contacts led to a job with the diocese as a maintenance assistant, and she watched as a friend and mentor, the Rev. Ramos, progressed through his own training to become the first Latino priest in the diocese.

In addition to her own desire, her husband and children have been her major support structure during the past decade, as she has worked to learn the Bible in detail — something she was never exposed to as a child, she said. During that time, she also became an American citizen and took classes at the University of Utah to improve her English.

It's been a long struggle, but her husband, Sergio, has done "whatever he has to so I am able to get started and take the classes. Sometimes he would say, 'I feel like I don't have a wife anymore,' because I was at work or at school" so much of the time.

Yet today's ceremony will likely be a dream come true for Sergio, as well, watching with pride, along with their four children, as his wife is made a priest. The Rev. Ramos said Gonzales' ordination is unusual but not surprising.

"Latino women have a very strong personality. I can tell you that women are the ones running the families. ... Most of our active members are women. They are the ones bringing the children to church."

The Rev. Ramos, who will work with the Rev. Gonzales catering to Latinos not only in the Salt Lake Valley, but in Ogden and Tooele as well, said the new priest and her husband will no doubt be role models for other couples in terms of mutual support and cooperation in achieving a dream.

"We won't have to re-invent the wheel" for another female priest within the diocese, he said. "What I see is that while it took Isabel 10 years, it will probably take five years for the next person."

Gonzales said she will be happy to encourage other women to dream, to set goals and to do whatever it takes to achieve them. She looks forward to being a sounding board for women who may be less willing to talk with a male priest and has been working with the congregation since June, when she was ordained a deacon.

"Sometimes you have to sacrifice things, but you can do it," she said, though she acknowledged there were times when she wondered whether the sacrifice was worth it.

Wearing both a clerical collar and a broad smile, she knows now that was.

Gonzales' ordination ceremony is scheduled tonight at 6:30 at the church, 4615 S. 3200 West, with Bishop Irish presiding. A congregational celebration will follow the service.


E-mail: carrie@desnews.com