Church to celebrate life of Catholic priest who found peace as a transgender woman

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Wendy Ella May, a disabled veteran, has been a fire fighter, EMT, paramedic and farmer and is currently running for county commissioner in Johnston County, N.C. She is the first openly transgender woman to run for public office there and campaigns

On Sunday, Wedgewood Church in Charlotte will celebrate Nancy Ledins, who began life in 1932 as William Griglak, became a Roman Catholic priest in 1959 and underwent a sex-change operation in 1979.

A member of the Wedgewood congregation, she died last week at age 84, said Wedgewood co-pastor Chris Ayers.

Decades before Caitlin Jenner and HB2 turned the status of transgender persons into a national debate, Ledins made headlines around the country as perhaps the first female priest in the history of the Catholic church, as the Los Angeles Times put it in a 1980 article.

Nancy saying benediction copy
Nancy Ledins was known among fellow members at Wedgewood Church for her Latin benedictions. Courtesy of Wedgewood Church.

Her life was not an easy journey. Not long after her operation became news in 1979, Ayers said, she was shot at, had her car bombed and was sent dead animals in the mail.

But Ledins eventually found peace.

Finally embracing the person, the woman, she’d always felt like inside rescued her from the depression that had tormented her for years, Ayers said.

“For the first time in my life, I am running into and not from. What a healthy feeling!” she wrote in a letter to her parents in 1978, as she was beginning her gender transition. “I am now very very glad to be alive. ... My bucket of tears (and there were many) are over. The sunshine is real.”

And in the last five years of her life, Ledins found new purpose as an active member at Wedgewood, a Charlotte church of about 60 worshipers – half of whom are gay, lesbian or transgender – that is affiliated with the American Baptists Churches USA and the United Church of Christ.

At this small but welcoming and diverse house of worship, Ayers said, she “preached, served the Eucharist, baptized children, anointed congregants with oil, sang benedictions in Latin ... and, most importantly, changed us and the world through her incredible life and ministry.”

In a Monday blog post headlined “Goodbye, Nancy,” Wedgewood member Maddison Wood recalled the first time she attended one of the church’s Sunday services.

Maddison Wood (left) and Nancy Ledins. Courtesy of Maddison Wood via Facebook

“I’m pretty sure I audibly gasped when Reverend Doctor Nancy Ledins took the pulpit,” Wood wrote. “The reason why I was in awe that day is because I had never seen an old transgender person. In her 80s, living her best life, being trans. In the lines on Nancy's face, I found hope. I looked at her and felt content, like everything was going to be OK. She was transgender, came out as transgender in the 1970s, and she had lived – not just survived, but lived – to old age.”

Still a priest?

According to a timeline provided by Wedgewood Church, Ledins was a native of Cleveland, Ohio. As a priest with the Missionaries of the Precious Blood, a Catholic religious order, Father William served in a parish in Detroit, went to Vietnam as an Army chaplain, and worked as a pastor and psychologist in Colorado.

But the priest harbored a secret. “I recall from way back that I didn’t know what to call it, but I felt it and knew that you didn’t talk about it,” Ledins told the National Catholic Reporter in 1979. “I wanted to be like my sister. I didn’t want to be myself. Women didn’t seem to be hassled like I felt hassled.”

In 1969, Ledins – then still William Griglak – resigned from the priesthood and, a year later, married a former nun. “It was my last macho attempt to find an answer,” Ledins later told the national Catholic newspaper.

They moved to Indiana, where Griglak worked as a psychologist in the drug treatment section of the state’s Commission on Mental Health.

But the couple later divorced – a prerequisite, Ledins told the National Catholic Reporter, before the surgeon in Trinidad, Colo., would perform the sex-change operation.

Was she still a priest? And, more than that, the first and only woman priest in a Catholic church that barred women from being ordained priests?

Some newspapers at the time wondered, and essentially decided that she was.

“Priest’s Sex Change May Pose Test of Church Law” read the headline atop that 1980 article in the Los Angeles Times. It also included this accompanying headline kicker: “FORMER FATHER WILLIAM NOW A WOMAN.”

nancy ledins la times_new
In 1980, the Los Angeles Times interviewed Nancy Ledins and told her story. The article’s focus was on whether she was still a priest in the Roman Catholic Church. . .

Ledins, then 47 and living in Van Nuys, Calif., “might be the first woman priest in Roman Catholic history in a technical sense,” wrote religion reporter John Dart, “since she never sought to be returned officially to lay status, has never been summarily notified of such by the church and, by the usual understanding of church law, is still a priest – though not a legally functioning one.”

The article also featured before-and-after-the-operation photos: One showed a balding Father Griglak, the other showed Ledins with a full head of hair – thanks, the article said, to a “hair weave of reddish-brown tint.”

The article added, though, that the broad-shouldered Ledins joked that “I’m no Miss America.”

The article in the National Catholic Reporter put it this way: “On Holy Thursday, the Catholic Church got its first woman priest. It was done quietly in Trinidad, Colo.” It wasn’t a bishop that gave the church its first female priest, the article added, “it was a surgeon.”

But Ledins made it clear at the time that she didn’t intend to embarrass the church, and declined offers to publicly celebrate Mass as Nancy Ledins.

“Technically, I’m still ordained,” she told the National Catholic Reporter. “But if the church is clever enough, there is probably a canon somewhere that spells my demise as a priest.”

Other newspapers took a less serious approach in headlines. From the Arizona Republic: “Ex-Catholic priest turns from the cloth to a dress.” And from the Orange County Register in California: “The Priest is a Lady.”

It’s uncertain whether the Catholic church itself ever recognized Ledins’ operation as one that truly changed her gender in the eyes of the church.

The Catholic News Service reported in 2003 that the Vatican sent a confidential document to bishops instructing them never to alter the sex listed in parish baptismal records and that gender remained what it was at birth.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, then the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote a subsequent letter to his colleagues that said this: “The altered condition of a member of the faithful under civil law does not change one’s canonical condition, which is male or female as determined at the moment of birth.”

‘Blazed the trail’

In the years after her surgery, Ledins mostly worked in the field of electrology – the practice of electrically removing hair permanently from the body.

She moved to Charlotte in 1996, and worked as a tax preparer.

But her call to the ministry was never far from her heart.

That 1980 Los Angeles Times article ended with a question for Ledins: How much of the priest was still in her?

“Quite a bit,” she answered. “I still have that feeling of wanting to minister to people.”

At Wedgewood Church in Charlotte, she shared her past with others in the congregation and often helped lead the worship.

For the Rev. Marsha Tegard, a member of Wedgewood for nearly two years, Ledins was a pioneer and an inspiration.

Tegard had been an Assemblies of God minister, but left that conservative Christian denomination before coming out as a transgender woman. She stayed away from churches for 12 years after that. Then she found Wedgewood, where Ledins encouraged her.

“She was just so welcoming and just kind of embraced me as someone just starting out on my journey,” Tegard said. “She told me, ‘It’s OK to be you. God loves you. You have a place in the Kingdom.’ 

When Ledins got sick, Tegard learned and offered a Latin benediction in her honor. Said Tegard: “I believe Nancy blazed the trail for people like me.”

Betsy Ragone, another Wedgewood member, found a strong and sensitive friend and counselor in Ledins after her son died of an accidental drug overdose. “A really amazing lady,” said Ragone, who also got help from Ledins in setting up a nonprofit, “Michael’s Voice,” in her son’s memory.

In 2014, on the 55th anniversary of her becoming a Catholic priest, Ledins offered a prayer at Wedgwood.

“Lord Father, my special thanks for the gift of ordination and ministry over the years,” she proclaimed. “And thank you for letting me be here. Amen and amen. Alleluia.”