St. Willibrord was consecrated to the episcopacy by Pope Sergius I in 696 at Rome. Upon his return to the Netherlands, he established his See at Utrecht. In addition, he established the dioceses at Deventer and Haarlem.
The Chapter of Utrecht convened at The Hague on April 27, 1723. After the Mass of the Holy Ghost, the canons prepared to advance the rights of the Catholic episcopate over the papacy by electing their own archbishop. Cornelius van Steenoven received the most votes and was named Archbishop-elect of Utrecht.
Old Catholics’ formal separation from Roman Catholicism began over the issue of Papal authority. On February 21, 1725, Pope Benedict XIII issued a brief declaring the election of Steenoven null and void, calling his consecration “illicit and execrable”. Both Varlet and Steenoven were suspended for illicit episcopal consecration and excommunicated for claiming a diocesan see of jurisdiction without the permission of the Roman Pontiff. This led to the breakaway of the Church of Utrecht.
At the First Vatican Council held from1869 to 1870, papal primacy in jurisdiction and the Catholic dogma of papal infallibility were defined, to the objection of the Old Catholic Church of the Netherlands and some communities in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Several separate communities were formed at this time and eventually formed the Union of Utrecht of the Old Catholic Churches.
In the spring of 1871, a convention was held in Munich which attracted several hundred participants, including the churches of Germany, Austria, Bohemia, and Switzerland who had earlier created the Union of Utrecht after Vatican I. The convention decided to form the “Old Catholic Church” to distinguish its members from what they saw as the novel teaching of papal infallibility in the Catholic Church.
In 1889, when the Old Catholic Church bishops founded the Utrecht Convention and published the agreement, thereafter, known as the Bishops’ Declaration of 1889, which laid down the foundation on how the Old Catholic Churches can grow together based on shared principles and how they would conduct their relations with one another.
In 1994 the German bishops decided to ordain women as priests and put this into practice on 27 May 1996. Similar decisions and practices followed in Austria, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. By the early 1900s, the movement included England, Canada, Croatia, France, Denmark, Italy, America, the Philippines, China, and Hungary. Old Catholic Churches are presently all over the world and particularly strong in Africa.