One might have thought that a camel would sprint through the eye of a needle before Sinéad O'Connor would turn up at Lourdes, the famous shrine to the Virgin Mary. After all, in 1992 the Irish rocker shocked the world when she tore up Pope John Paul II's photo on Saturday Night Live and denounced the Catholic Church as "the real enemy." But there she was at a luxury hotel in the French town on April 22, only two weeks after making headlines by snatching her daughter from her ex-lover. Wearing virginal white vestments, O'Connor was waving her hand as if in benediction, calling herself Mother Bernadette Marie and, oh yeah, claiming she had become a priest.

She appeared to guests at the Grand Hotel de la Grotte, half a mile from the shrine, just minutes after a self-styled Irish bishop named Michael Cox ordained her in an incense-filled room on the fourth floor. O'Connor, 32, later described her ecstasy in a phone conversation with Irish journalist Róisín Ingle. "She talks about how she's on her honeymoon with God," says Ingle.

In the eyes of the Vatican, she's honeymooning solo. Cox, 53, a renegade Catholic priest and former harbor policeman outside Dublin, is "an eccentric of the highest order," says Jim Cantwell, head of the Catholic Church's media center in Dublin. An advocate for female priesthood, which the Vatican forbids, Cox once tried to peddle confessions-by-phone at $1.30 a minute. "I don't know what he is except that he's not Catholic," adds Cantwell. O'Connor couldn't care less. "This man saved my soul," she told Neil Michael of Britain's The Mirror regarding Cox. "I owe him my life."

Cox approached the singer five months ago, after she announced in a TV interview that she had always wanted to be a priest. "I told her, in my church she could be one," says Cox. He also let her skip the usual vows of celibacy, obedience and poverty. "I am head of my own church," he says, "so I can do that." Now O'Connor, who sources say has had a lifelong obsession with the Virgin Mary, says she'll study the sacraments and maybe open a healing center in Lourdes. Cox's only known disciple, she'll share his base of operations in Cree, Ireland. "I'm like the Holy Trinity," she told Irish talk show host Gay Byrne recently. "I'm a mother, a singer and a priest."

In the first role, she already has encountered some troubles. She and Dublin newspaper columnist John Waters, 44, separated after O'Connor became pregnant during their brief 1995 fling. Yet they have been squabbling over their daughter, Roisin ("Row-sheen"), now 3, off and on since her birth. (O'Connor, who lives in London, already has custody of Jake, 11, her son with ex-husband John Reynolds, a musician.) In January, Waters accused O'Connor of neglecting Roisin—he was upset, says one source, that his daughter was still in diapers—but British authorities determined otherwise. Says her friend Dublin journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman: "O'Connor is a conscientious, attentive and loving mother. She turns down all sorts of invitations to stay at home with her kids."

She can also be volatile. In mid-March, in the midst of another legal go-round with Waters, O'Connor spat in his face outside the courthouse and ranted, "Say I'm a good mother, say I'm a good mother!" That night, she reportedly attempted suicide with 20 Valium tablets. Days later, while recovering, she handed Roisin off to live with Waters. Then, on a visit to Dublin on Easter weekend, she ran off with the child. "In past years she would come and take the girl out, so John thought little of it," says a friend. "The next thing, she [and Roisin were] on a jet for London." All the stress may even have spurred her on her path to Lourdes. "I was being terrorized in my life over my kids," she told Irish TV host Gay Byrne, "so I asked the bishop to be ordained quicker...to give my life a purpose."

How her clerical status will play out in family court will be seen later this month at a custody hearing. "Sinead's behavior," says one concerned friend, "mightn't help her case." Indeed, with O'Connor off praying, says a colleague of Waters', Roisin is once again with her father. As for the singing career of the artist formerly known as Sinead, her plan to call herself Mother Bernadette Marie professionally may not do much for the sales of her next album, due sometime this year.

What's next, heaven knows. "It wouldn't surprise me," said her novelist brother Joe O'Connor on a recent Irish radio show, "if she became a Mormon or a rabbi."

Tom Gliatto
Mary Finnegan in Dublin, Joanna Blonska in London and Ian Sparks in Lourdes

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Finnegan,
  • Joanna Blonska,
  • Ian Sparks.