Thursday, February 18, 1999
Longtime Big Sur resident Penny Vieregge, 70, paid $25 for her mail-order ordination from the Oregon-based Church of the Divine Immortality almost 20 years ago.
Like Steve Webster, she became ordained initially to marry friends who asked her for that favor. She and her husband had moved to Big Sur from Sausalito in 1970, and began sheltering homeless teenagers in their house. Some years later, two of her former "foster kids" called and, independently of each other, asked if she''d perform their marriage ceremonies.
"I had shared so much of their misery, and they wanted me to share their happiness," Vieregge says. She found an ad for the Church of the Divine Immortality, sent off her $25 check, and was pleasantly surprised when she received the church''s tenets in the mail. "They exactly mirrored my own," she says. "Rejection of hierarchy, a blending of Eastern and Western philosophy. I was stunned."
Since then, Vieregge says she''s performed "hundreds" of marriage ceremonies. Many are couples referred to her by The Ventana Inn, an upscale Big Sur resort. Tourists, she charges $150. Locals, she marries for free.
Vieregge comes from a religious background. She entered a Dominican order after high school, and was a postulate in 1947 when her parents pulled her out of the convent and sent her to a Methodist college. There, she explored Eastern philosophies, but preserved her Catholic faith.
Today, she is still a practicing Catholic. In fact, concerned that her non-denominational ministerial duties might put her at odds with the Catholic Church, she sought advice from her priest. He told her that so long as she did not perform baptisms or give Communion--neither of which she does--the Church considers the marriage ceremonies she performs as purely secular, and not in violation of any Catholic doctrine.
Vieregge offers her clients a sample wedding text to work from, and adds in what they want, according to their backgrounds and beliefs. "Most of these people were reared in some religion, have rejected it, but are still deeply religious," she says. "They want a ceremony for this enormous step of commitment. I''m there for them. I counsel them, and try to guide them back to their religion."
For Vieregge, becoming a minister is just one more way she has chosen to help people. Originally a Gestalt therapist at the Esalen Institute, she stopped doing regular therapy 30 years ago, and now works with Esalen''s Gazebo School, for young children. She also founded the Cliff Rescue unit of the Big Sur Fire Brigade eight years ago, and was its commander for five years; is an instructor and trainer for the Red Cross, teaching schoolchildren about first aid and personal safety; and acted as Big Sur branch director of the county department of health and human services during the El Ni¤o floods last spring. She plows the $150 fee she takes for tourist weddings back into one of those local operations.
"I do this to share people''s happiness," she says of her ministerial duties. "I''ve done so much disaster work. I ran the Big Sur volunteer ambulance for 15 years, and saw people in such misery and terror. To do weddings, to see happiness, keeps me nourished."
Calling herself a "back door minister," Vieregge says it took her years to feel comfortable calling herself a minister, since she wasn''t ordained by a traditional church. That changed when she flew to New York to comfort a woman whose husband had just died. "I was driving back afterwards, and an inner voice said, ''You''re feeding the hungry, teaching the young, and comforting the bereaved. Lady, you''re a minister!''"
The "piece of paper" on which her $25 ordination is printed is nothing more than a legality, she believes. "Ministry," she says, "comes from the core."