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A group of North Coast Catholics put down their protest signs in front of St. Eugene's Cathedral in Santa Rosa for a moment of prayer Tuesday.

The circle of about 30 joined rallies held outside churches from Alaska to Florida to express concern over a Vatican-led crackdown on U.S. nuns.

Motorists honked and waved in support as they passed the circle at Montgomery Drive and Farmers Lane during the evening commute.

"Please guide the sisters to be courageous and brave," said Cindy Vrooman of Sonoma, a former nun who belongs to the Emmaus Faith Community in Kenwood.

The nationwide protests grew after a council of bishops issued a "doctrinal assessment" that noted a "prevalence of certain radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith."

The letter described a "crisis" within the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents most Catholic orders in the United States. The bishops, who investigated the nuns on behalf of the Vatican, characterized the group as having a diminished focus on upholding certain Catholic teachings and noted an overemphasis on social justice.

The letter said some nuns had publicly questioned the prohibition against women's ordination and the church's treatment of homosexuality.

Members of the group said the rebuke was an affront to generations of nuns who formed schools, built hospitals and worked with the poor.

"There is virtually no part of social justice in the last 150 years that the sisters haven't been a part of," said Bill Boorman of Oakmont.

Boorman, a retired Navy officer who taught sixth grade at St. Gabriel School in San Francisco for decades, joined others holding signs with messages that read "Nobody Does it Better" and "Grace Under Pressure."

"Sisters are the bedrock of the church," said Theresa Udall, 78, of Santa Rosa, who attends Resurrection Church. "They really follow the teaching of Jesus."

Standing at the curb, Udall raised a sign that read "Leave Sisters Alone." She said she joined the protest because she believes nuns do some of the hardest and most important work of the church.

"Priests haven't held women in the same regard that Jesus did," Udall said.

The leadership conference's board met for the first of three days in Washington, D.C., to form an official response.

Tuesday's rally was the third and last weekly event held in front of St. Eugene's in synch with protests held nationwide.

Bishop Robert Vasa of the Santa Rosa Catholic Diocese could not be reached for comment late Tuesday afternoon.

Those gathered at the Santa Rosa cathedral Tuesday belonged to congregations across Sonoma County, including St. Leo the Great Church in Boyes Hot Springs, St. Philip the Apostle Church in Occidental, St. James Church in Petaluma as well as Holy Spirit Church, Resurrection Church and St. Eugene's Cathedral in Santa Rosa.

They were joined by a handful of non-Catholics, who included Lutheran, Unitarian and nondenominational Christians.

Regina Phillips, 70, of Sonoma, sat on the St. Eugene's marquee with a sign "Amen Amen Amen."

"They're telling them to be quiet and be good little girls," said Phillips who attends St. Leo's. "We can't go backward."

The nuns are the "backbone of the church," said fellow St. Leo's member Jacqueline Hayes, a nurse at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.

Jesus "would be here with us, I know that," Hayes said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.