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With West Chester woman, Philly now has five 'consecrated virgins'

Draped in a billowing white wedding gown, Jennifer Settle stood before the altar of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul holding a small, globed candle. As she took her first step to meet her new husband, the glass slipped off, shattering on the cold marble floor.

But the 45-year-old West Chester woman stayed calm. A moment later, her voice held firm as she sang a pledge to her soon-to-be-husband:  "Now with all my heart I follow you. I reverence you and seek your presence."

As for her groom's reaction, it was impossible to say for sure.  Because on this Thursday evening, before 150 people at the cathedral, Settle was marrying Jesus himself.

She became a "consecrated virgin," taking part in a rarely used Catholic ritual that dates to the fourth century.  Settle is now one of just 230 consecrated virgins in the United States, five of whom live  in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Her honor is "the highest state which a Christian woman can attain," according to the U.S. Association of Consecrated Virgins, which has a nearly 400-page information packet about such consecrations.

All consecrated virgins must pledge eternal chastity to Jesus, both past and future. Though Settle had dated men in the past, she said she remained celibate.

A member of SS. Simon and Jude Parish in West Chester, Settle said she had thought about getting married and having children. But the Cedar Falls, Iowa, native said she realized she was called to a different vocation. "I think the beauty of celibacy in the church is that it's not a negation of marriage and family," she said. "It's really raising up marriage and family to say it's so precious that we're willing to give it up to be of service."

Her service will include praying for priests and seminarians, acting as a sort of "spiritual mother" within the church, Settle said before the service.

There are few rules that consecrated virgins must officially satisfy, other than frequent prayer and attendance at Mass. Consecrated virgins live in the world, wearing secular clothing, going about normal daily lives, albeit with more prayer and no sex. Some are doctors, teachers, psychologists. Others work for the church.

Settle is managing director of the Theology of the Body Institute in Downingtown. The institute promotes the teachings of Pope John Paul II.

She first felt her calling to become a consecrated virgin 6½ years ago.

"I saw that the life of a consecrated virgin was already in some way what I was living," Settle said. "It was the lifestyle that I was living of daily Mass, adoration, prayer with the Lord."

But becoming a consecrated virgin is more than simply declaring one's intention. Settle embarked upon what the church calls formation. For 2½ years, Settle worked with the Rev. Dennis Gill and with a consecrated virgin who served as a mentor. She studied the lives of virgin saints and scripture, and what a life of virginity would truly mean. Only then did Archbishop Charles J. Chaput deem her ready.

After falling out of favor for centuries, the rite was restored to lay women in the church in 1970 as a result of Vatican II reforms.

Since 2000, the church in the U.S. has averaged about 10 consecrations a year, according to Judith Stegman, president of the Association of Consecrated Virgins.

Several of Settle's new peers traveled to witness the Thursday evening ceremony. Sophia Winiarski of Bristol, Conn., had never met Settle before, but received a personal invitation from her.

"It's just so powerful," Winiarski said after the ceremony.

Asked about their all being technically married to the same man, Winiarski smiled and said consecrated virgins experience no jealousy in competing for Jesus' affection.

"There's room for all of us, because it's so awesome," she said, laughing.

During the ceremony, Settle lay face down on the floor of the basilica, motionless.

A young man in cream-colored robes began a slow recitation: "Lord have mercy."

The congregation chorused back, "Christ have mercy."

"St. Michael," the man intoned, commencing a litany of saints.

After several minutes of the invocation of saints, Settle rose. Chaput, wearing green and white robes, told the assembled, "May nothing tarnish the glory of perfect virginity."

After the ceremony, Settle posed for a photograph with the archbishop in front of a gilded portrait of Jesus. When Chaput left, she faced the portrait, alone with her husband for the first time. She said a short prayer.

Only then did she turn and walk to the group of friends waiting to congratulate her.