FAIRFIELD — Eleanor Sauers has been involved with St. Anthony of Padua Church since 2002 as the director of religious education and as a pastoral minister. As of Jan. 1, she will become the parish leader, the first woman in the Diocese of Bridgeport to serve as such.

“I’m feeling very excited about it,” Sauers said. “It’s a wonderful thing, I’m very grateful for the bishop for taking this step.”

Officially, Sauers will be the parish life coordinator at St. Anthony of Padua, meaning she will oversee the daily administration of the parish while a team of priests will fulfill its sacramental needs, such as celebrating Mass.

“We are at a very particular moment in the history of our Diocese, and indeed, within our Church,” Bishop Frank Caggiano wrote in a Dec. 9 letter announcing his decision to appoint Sauers. “As I travel throughout Fairfield County, it has become apparent to me that many lay women and men are seeking new ways to serve their parishes, and, in collaboration with the clergy, to create vibrant and thriving communities.”

Caggiano said his decision abides by canon law.

“My decision to ask Eleanor to take on this model of ministry, the first of its kind for a lay woman in this Diocese, is based on several factors,” Caggiano explained, citing the uniqueness of the St. Anthony of Padua parish and precedent in other dioceses across the nation for this particular model of pastoral leadership.

Prior to her appointment as parish leader, Sauers headed the church’s administration following the death of the church’s pastor, the Rev. John Baran, in March.

“I’m hoping to build on the legacy of Father Baran and working with my team and priests to serve the parish. We believe in collaboration and so we all have a voice at the table,” said Sauers, who serves as a lecturer and adjunct professor of religious studies at Fairfield University. “I’m looking forward to that and bringing the role of women more out in the open in terms of the church and hopefully inspiring some women.”

The Rev. Anthony Ciorra, vice president for Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University, has known Sauers ever since he was a deacon at Fordham University, where Sauers studied for her master’s and doctorate degrees.

“Eleanor is an extraordinarily wonderful human being, very competent and knows her community well,” Ciorra said. “In terms of her appointment, I think it’s a wonderful sign that you have a lay person appointed as administrator of the parish and I think the fact that she’s a woman is a major step forward in the role of women in the church.”

One woman excited about the new direction of the church is Beth Paris, St. Anthony of Padua’s pastoral minister for youth.

“We’re thrilled that the bishop has entrusted our parish with this form of leadership which is the most awesome part,” Paris said. “It really speaks volumes about the parish ministry as a whole and how involved the laity has been. It’s a very exciting time in the church that the door has been opened to this opportunity.”

Like Paris, Frank Macari, the church’s director of music, has worked with Sauers since the mid-2000s.

“I’m grateful for Bishop Caggiano for his vision implementing this model of leadership in our diocese and his confidence in (Sauers) and the parish community of St. Anthony to achieve that,” Macari said.

Sauers said she was looking forward to assuming her new role next year.

“We’re a welcoming community and striving to discover people’s gifts and encourage them in service of the parish and the greater community,” Sauers said.

humberto.juarez@hearstmediact.com