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October 31, 2014

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A rebel priest makes his mark in Detroit

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Mandi Wright / Detroit Free Press/MCT

Bishop Karl Rodig speaks to Elizabeth Shanaver, left, and her wife, Melissa McDaniel, at St. Anthony Church in Detroit on May 19, 2014. Rodig broke away from the Catholic church in 1989 over it’s stance on various issues.

DETROIT — From Catholic priest to runway model to same-sex marriage advocate, Bishop Karl Rodig has undergone several spiritual transformations in the last decades.

And in the process of saving souls, the self-proclaimed rebel has saved a historic Detroit church from slipping into the abyss.

Rodig, who broke away from the Catholic Church in 1989 over its stance on various issues — including priest celibacy — has spent the last three years breathing new life into the Cathedral of St. Anthony, a 113-year-old Romanesque church in Detroit.

The German native bought the church from the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2010 for $357,000 with a key mission: to preach God's love to people from all walks of life. His congregation of 60 is half gay, half straight.

He gives Communion weekly and wears the pastoral collar.

He supports same-sex marriage.

He believes women should be allowed to be priests, and that priests should be allowed to marry.

"I believe in love," he said. "I think that love is for everyone, not just a few."

On a recent spring day, while sitting in the pews of St. Anthony, Melissa McDaniel and Elizabeth Shanaver were in awe as they listened to Rodig talk about love. One was raised Baptist, the other Catholic.

The couple long to have a religious church wedding but can't because because of Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage, which is currently tied up in a federal appeals court.

"We are here for you," Rodig told them in his soft, European accent.

For the two women, who are raising three children together, Rodig's words were both comforting and shocking.

"I was floored," said Shanaver, who was raised Baptist and had never before heard a pastoral figure openly support gay rights. "The bishop was amazing. He has a stance that love is love, and nobody should be judged ... It was fascinating to me."

Shanaver also was fascinated by Rodig's passion to help rebuild Detroit, a city he landed in after years of looking for an affordable church to call his own.

Rodig, 55, came to Detroit after years of parish and hospital ministry in Florida, where he provided pastoral services to AIDS victims and served as chaplain at Miami Children's Hospital. He also held a side job modeling to make extra money.

Among his goals was to bring about reforms in the Catholic Church, and have his own church.

He shopped around, traveling to Texas, New England, Kansas — among other states — looking for an affordable church.

Detroit was the spot. St. Anthony's, which closed in 2006, was up for grabs. And Rodig grabbed it.

"It needed to be saved and that's a blessing," Shanaver said of the historic church. "It couldn't have happened at a better time. ... It was nice that he picked Detroit."

Rodig was ordained to the Roman Catholic priesthood in 1986 in the Cathedral of Salzburg, Austria. Three years later, he left the church because — among other reasons — he believed celibacy should be optional for priests, not mandatory. And, he had fallen in love.

Rodig also was an intellectual, receiving a master's degree in theology in 1986; he did postgraduate work at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and received a doctorate in ministry in 1998 at the Florida Center for Theological Studies.

That same year, he founded a new movement called the Reformed Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church, which now goes under the name of the Ecumenical Catholic Church of Christ (ECC). Rodig took the title of bishop. He said the ECC now claims more than 1 million members worldwide. Each church is run by its own leaders.

Detroit is the group's world headquarters.

Rodig said he wanted the group to have a home base.

Detroit was it.

Rodig not only bought the church, he restored the rundown neighborhood. He kept up the church property and planted gardens. He opened a weekly food and clothing pantry and made friends with the neighbors.

The homes that surround the immaculate church all have tidy lawns. And the church bells, which chased some of the rowdy locals away, bring a sense of peace and serenity to the urban landscape.

"I love Detroit," he said. "This is an oasis."

According to Joe Kohn, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, St. Anthony's is no longer affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. The fallout was not expected, he said, stressing the archdiocese sold the church to Rodig with the understanding that it would be called Church of the Holy Unity.

The word "Catholic" was not supposed to be in the title, Kohn said.

"We were very dismayed that it would be run by a schismatic group," Kohn said, noting the archdiocese still receives several calls from Catholics asking if St. Anthony's is a true Roman Catholic Church.

"It is not a Roman Catholic Church," Kohn said. "Catholics should know (Rodig) is not in allegiance with the pope."

That's just church politics, said Rodig, who maintains his church is Catholic.

"It's not about the hierarchy. It's about the people," he said.

And as for making waves with the Vatican.

"I'm a rebel," Rodig said, smiling. "This is about love."

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