A recently excommunicated Catholic cleric has defied the Vatican by ordaining a woman as a priest within his ministry.

The Rev. Pat Buckley declared 67-year-old hermit Frances Meigh a priest at a private ceremony Monday in an abandoned Protestant church near this Irish Republic village."It is not the body that is being ordained, but the soul. Gender is irrelevant," said Buckley, who began talking to Meigh about becoming a priest last year.

The Catholic Church - the official faith of 4 million of Ireland's more than 5 million citizens - said Buckley had no authority to ordain anyone.

But Meigh, who painted religious icons for a living while living as a hermit at a north England monastery, said she was "quite content" with her decision. She said her new title would be the "very Rev. Mother Frances."

Meigh previously was married and raised three children before getting her marriage annulled by church authorities. She later volunteered for Mother Teresa's mission in Calcutta.

Buckley has become a cult figure for his frequent collisions with church teachings, including his determination to remarry divorcees in his former ministry in Northern Ireland.

The Vatican excommunicated Buckley in April after rebel Bishop Michael Cox ordained Buckley a bishop. The Vatican, however, hasn't taken any action against Cox, a former Irish Army soldier who was proclaimed a priest, then a bishop, by the dissident Tridentine wing of the church that rejects the Vatican II reforms of 1962 and insists on holding services in Latin.

Cox, who has a following as a faith healer, enjoyed fleeting international publicity in 1996 when he offered a "confessions by phone" service in a bid to raise funds for refurbishing his home base, another derelict Protestant church in the Irish midlands.

The Anglican Church of Ireland dropped its ban on permitting female priests three years ago.

On Sunday, it ordained its youngest priest, 24-year-old Lynda Peilow, to join some 50 others.