Ruth Fitzpatrick, who felt she was called to the Roman Catholic priesthood beginning as a teenager and later helped lead a movement to press the church to stop barring women like her from being ordained, died on June 15 in Fairfax, Va. She was 90.
The cause was cerebral arteriosclerosis, her son John Fitzpatrick said.
Ms. Fitzpatrick’s insistence that the church was a sexist institution that needed to treat women as equals landed her in the leadership of the Women’s Ordination Conference, a national grass-roots advocacy group that has pushed for the church to ordain women as priests since the mid-1970s.
“Our hopes were high,” she told the author Linda Brandi Cateura in her book “Catholics USA: Makers of a Modern Church” (1989), recalling being hired in 1977 as the conference’s national coordinator and initially running the group from her dining room table in Fairfax. “At the time we honestly thought women would be ordained within five years.”
Ms. Fitzpatrick, who could be tough, pointed and humorous, wanted to change the church from within rather than leave it in frustration.
“She made a conscious decision to stay and do the hard work to push the church forward on full equality for women,” her son John said in a phone interview. “She loved the church and wanted to see it do better by women.”
Ms. Fitzpatrick was confident that the church would ordain women — at one point she thought it would happen by 2000 — in part because of the ordination of 11 women who had defied a male hierarchy to become Episcopal priests in 1974.
“The E.R.A. was on the docket,” Dolly Pomerleau, a founder of the Women’s Ordination Conference, said by phone, “and there was a group called Priests for Equality all over the place, so it looked like the tide was definitely turning.”
But in the church, Ms. Fitzpatrick faced an unyielding foe.
In 1979, she recalled, she and two other members of the organization held an all-night candlelight vigil outside where Pope John Paul II was staying during a visit to Washington. When the pope emerged in the morning, she caught his attention by saying, loudly, “Ordain women!” The Pope smiled but shook his head in disagreement.
In 1992, when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a draft of a pastoral letter that condemned sexism but affirmed the Vatican’s teaching that women could not serve as priests, Ms. Fitzpatrick told The New York Times, “They continue to sin the sin of sexism by claiming that women cannot be ordained.”
And, in 1994, when the pope’s apostolic letter shut the door on ordaining women, Ms. Fitzpatrick told the Religious News Service, “This is a slap in the face.” She added, “We’re being put on a stake like St. Joan.”
“This is an inquisition,” she said. “No doubt about it.”
Ruth Louise McDonough was born on March 10, 1933, in Port Chester, N.Y. Her father, Joseph, was a colonel in the Army National Guard and later a senior administrator at Drexel University in Philadelphia. Her mother, Katharine (Devereux) McDonough, was a homemaker.
Ruth grew up in a churchgoing Irish-Catholic home surrounded by influences that led her to want to become a priest. Her great-aunt Louise was a nun, and her great-uncle Joe was a Jesuit priest. When her father was stationed in South Korea in the late 1940s, taking along his family, she was drawn to the benevolent way she saw Maryknoll missionary priests treat local people. She wrote a letter to a senior Maryknoll priest asking to join the society, but not as a nun.
“Now, I knew there weren’t women priests,” she said in “Catholics USA,” “but I had a call.”
In 1955, she married John R. Fitzpatrick Jr., an Army infantryman who had fought in World War II and the Korean War. (He later served as an Army Ranger in Vietnam.) When he was stationed in Naples, Italy, with NATO forces from 1969 to 1972, Ms. Fitzpatrick would travel to Rome to lead Vatican tours for military families and volunteered to help homeless children.
After her husband retired from the Army, he studied law at the Catholic University of America in Washington while she entered Georgetown University. She graduated in 1975 with a bachelor’s degree in theology.
That was the year the Roman Catholic Women’s Ordination Conference, as the group was originally known, first met, in Southfield, Mich. It drew so many registrants that it was moved from the University of Detroit to the Sheraton-Southfield Hotel. Ms. Fitzpatrick did not attend but learned that of the estimated 1,200 people who did show up — among them nuns, priests, theologians and lay people — 280 women stood when attendees were asked how many felt a calling to the priesthood.
“It knocked the socks off everyone,” Ms. Fitzpatrick told The Chicago Tribune in 1993. “The organizers knew the issue was of interest, but they didn’t know how many felt that way.”
The organizers soon made their ad hoc group permanent. Ms. Fitzpatrick served as national coordinator from 1977 to 1978 and remained an active member. An adherent of liberation theology, which focuses on the oppressed, she spent time protesting the United States government’s policies in Central America and helping undocumented refugees who had fled to the U.S.
She returned to the Women’s Ordination Conference as national coordinator in 1985 and stayed for a decade before once again focusing on pursuits involving liberation theology. Her husband did pro bono work helping undocumented refugees become U.S. citizens.
Kate McElwee, the conference’s executive director, said that Ms. Fitzpatrick had set an example for her.
“I get a lot of energy by working with women who I assume are like Ruth, who are called to the priesthood and want to change the church for the better,” she said by phone. “Although it’s a difficult and long-term movement, there is joy in the resistance we offer.”
Today the group has about 3,000 dues-paying members.
In addition to her son John, Ms. Fitzpatrick, who died in a long-term care facility in Fairfax, is survived by another son, Michael; a daughter, P. Kelly Fitzpatrick; six grandchildren; and a sister, Theresa Cunningham. Her husband died in 2017.
In 1992, Ms. Fitzpatrick sought to meet a female priest who had been ordained in 1970 by the underground Roman Catholic Church in Czechoslovakia during Communist rule.
She had read an article in The Times that said “at least three women” from that church had been ordained, though it did not name them. So after the Communists were swept from power as part of the Velvet Revolution, she and three other women flew to Czechoslovakia to find one of the ordained, identified as Ludmila Javorová.
Ms. Pomerleau, who was part of the delegation, said the women met with a group from the underground church. “At the end of the session, this woman came up to us and said, ‘You can come to my apartment,’ and that’s when she told us she was Ludmila,” she said. “Ruth was all ears, as we all were.”