Dignity Boston marching in the 2012 Boston Pride Parade this past June (photo: Chuck Colbert)
The nation’s largest LGBT Catholic organization, Dignity, has deep New England roots. The Boston chapter marks its four decades with an anniversary dinner this Saturday, December 1.
Note: The following story is adapted from a story that ran in the July/August 2012 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
By Chuck Colbert
Everybody has a story at Dignity/Boston. And storytelling is one important way that the local LGBT Catholic worshipping community is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its founding and honoring its legacy.
Lourdes Rodríguez-Nogués, for example, moved to Boston from Puerto Rico in 1977 to attend graduate school. “I was looking for a place to worship that was Catholic,” she said. Rodríguez-Nogués found that place on Easter Sunday that year and has been a local chapter and national organization mainstay, having served as chapter president and now president of DignityUSA.
“It was so moving,” she said recently over the telephone, “everybody was friendly.” Rodríguez-Nogués admitted she was “a little anxious” about her first Dignity Mass. “I didn’t talk to anyone, left right away, went straight to my car, and started to cry.” Now “Dignity is my parish church,” she said, “where all my spiritual needs get met, not only going to church on Sundays, but also other needs. ... People know my name and my family,” she continued. “Dignity is a community,” a close-knit group of “people whom I care about, and who care about me.”
Dignity/Boston officially turns 40 this year and the local chapter plans a weekend celebration, including a dinner dance on Saturday, December 1, at the Holiday Inn on Beacon Hill. The next day, during a 5:30 p.m. liturgy, the congregation will celebrate a Catholic Mass, the gathering to be held at the Episcopalian Church of St. John the Evangelist in Boston’s Beacon Hill.
For the past four decades, Dignity has forged its Catholic identity by making a key distinction between the hierarchical church, which in recent decades has been alienating LGBT persons, their families, and their loving relationships, and the faithful in the pews, progressive Catholics who say they are Church too, the Body of Christ.
“The bishops do not get to define what Catholic is,” said Rodríguez-Nogués. “We claim that identity for ourselves, offering an alternative to a way of living the Gospel call.”
The idea of a gay Catholic group originated with Augustinian priest Fr. Patrick Nidorf in 1969, in Los Angeles.
Locally, Dignity/Boston grew out of a short-lived group called Interfaith, started by a local diocesan Holy Cross priest, the late Father Tom Oddo, along with former Holy Cross seminarians Ray Struble and Jim Andrews, and Ralph Fuccillo, among others, according to Struble.
Another priest instrumental in Dignity’s growth during the 1980’s until his death in 2005 was the Rev. Dr. Richard Rasi, a priest with the Melkite Catholic rite, who frequently presided at Mass and established a popular ministry in Provincetown.
The local chapter first met on December 3, 1972, at the Randolph Country Club. The next year, Dignity moved to St. Clement’s Church where it remained until 1977 when the local chapter moved to Arlington Street Church. In 1988, Dignity/Boston moved to St. John the Evangelist Church, located in Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where it remains today.
Back in the day, “It was a radical time,” said Struble. “We were very radical Catholics, trying to get the Church to change.”
Dignity marched in the Boston’s first Gay Pride Parade, and to this day a contingent participates every year.
Politics and religion mixed well in the organization’s early years. “Dignity represented —for those of us who were Catholic — our political family, because [secular gays wanted] nothing to do with the religious crowd,” said Struble. Keep in mind, he continued, “Boston was one of the most politicized gay cities in the country and one of the most Catholic.”
“Dignity gave voice to the political piece that people of faith were trying to get into the public square,” he explained. “We had push back from secularists. We were looked at as compromising.”
But politics was only half of the Dignity equation.
“For those of us who were coming out of Vatican II and coming to terms with gayness, and what I learned in the seminary, I felt [the need] to be doing Christ’s work in the world,” Struble said. “For those of us in the seminary, this was our calling.
“We took the social action of Jesus’ message to heart to be religious activists. That meant accepting everything, including women at the altar,” he explained. “The sacrament [of the Eucharist] was the affirmation of us as one.”
Early on, a legacy was established, said Struble, “Dignity/Boston was the driving force behind establishing Dignity national.” The local chapter continues providing talent and treasure to DignityUSA.
Still, the local chapter’s most vibrant times were the eleven years—1977 to 1988—when Dignity gathered in the basement of Arlington Street Church. Dignity member Brian McNaught, a mayoral liaison to Boston’s gay and lesbian community, took to the stage during the 1982 Pride festival to announce an executive order banning sexual orientation discrimination in employment and the delivery of city services.
That same year Dignity founded a Watchline, a hotline to monitor anti-gay violence in Boston.
In 1984, along with Arlington Street Church, Dignity co-founded the Friday Night Supper Program, which continues to feed the hungry and homeless 52 Fridays a year.
And yet the local chapter experienced adversity.
In January 1983, a bomb threat interrupted Dignity’s liturgy. Two years later a fire of suspicious origins burned Dignity/Boston’s offices at Arlington Street Church.
By 1987, the Boston Globe took notice, publishing a front-page article about the local chapter, titled “Gay Catholics Find Sanctuary Outside the Fold.”
It was during Dignity’s heyday that Marianne Duddy-Burke, now executive director of the national organization DignityUSA, found a spiritual home in the local chapter.
A Wellesley College alumna, Duddy-Burke had just started graduate studies at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology, which is now a part of Boston College.
“I was not part of a Catholic community, at the time,” she said in a telephone interview, having “been kicked out of leadership in the Newman Center” as an undergraduate due to being lesbian. Newman Centers are Catholic ministries and outreach at non-Catholic colleges and universities.
In 1982 she and a straight roommate found their way to Arlington Street Church.
“I remember the singing [and] an instant sense these people were serious about their faith,” said Duddy-Burke, who served as chapter president in the 1980s.
By 1988 Dignity/Boston regularly attracted 200 people to Sunday evening Masses. Partly because of its size, Dignity moved to St. John’s. Liturgies now draw about 40 people per week. The local chapter’s membership is a bit north of 110.
The move to St. John’s, however, was bittersweet.
“Immediately, we lost a lot of people who just didn’t make the move” said Duddy-Burke. And the AIDS epidemic had taken its toll, with any number of the chapter’s gay men living with HIV/AIDS and then dying.
Church politics also prompted an exodus. “There were big disagreements over how far we should go with the use of inclusive language for humans and for God. Can God be She?” Duddy-Burke said. “It became a huge issue with divisions in the community and ruptured relationships,” she added. “It became very hard for us to understand each others’ points of view.”
The rift fell largely along gender lines, Duddy-Burke readily acknowledged, particularly among some gay men who perceived that “a group of militant lesbians were taking over their faith.”
“The reality is for women, power inequities play out differently for us in intentional communities,” Duddy-Burke said.
“It’s a different experience for women,” Duddy-Burke said. “A lot of strong and spiritual women have found a home in Dignity.”
Two of them are Peggy Burns, current chapter president and national operations manager, and Peggy Hayes, who is heading up the 40th anniversary celebration.
“It’s our faith community where we can celebrate spirituality every Sunday,” said Burns, who is also a former DignityUSA vice-president and secretary. “At the same time, it’s a great social community. We can talk about religion without people thinking you are weird.”
Twenty years ago, Hayes, then living in New York City, found her way to Dignity/Boston via the Conference of Catholic Lesbians, which was meeting in the Hub.
“I met my now spouse” through Dignity, she said. “I can’t imagine my life without this community. My soul is continually fed every week by the liturgy.”
An intentional worshipping community, Dignity functions much like any Catholic parish does. “We baptize children, marry couples and bury people,” said Hayes. “And we do it all ourselves.”
“The liturgy is run by consensus” and the board of directors makes decisions the same way, she said. “It’s very democratic.”
“We live by the belief that we are the living church.” Hayes said. “Dignity is where my significant relationships are, where my spiritual needs are met, and where I feel called to do the work.”
Like other parishes, Dignity takes up a second collection. Through the years leadership estimates the chapter has contributed $250,000 to groups such as PFLAG, Harbor to Bay, the AIDS Walk, Friday Night Supper Program, and the African American Meeting House, among others.
In recalling Dignity’s local legacy, Hayes pointed to the chapter’s “being a Catholic voice in marriage equality,” she said, referring to “literally hundreds of phone calls made with the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry,” as well as participation in fundraising and rallies, “speaking from the Catholic perspective.”
“The issue of marriage can be seen from a Catholic social justice lens,” said Hayes.
Dignity also threw organizational support behind recent efforts to pass the Transgender Civil Rights Law that took effect earlier this year.
In addition to its Friday Night Supper Program, Dignity/Boston members participate in The AIDS Action Committee Walk.
The local chapter also fields a team called Cardinal Sins, which bikes from Boston to Provincetown each September in the Harbor to the Bay, an AIDS benefit ride.
Forty years of Dignity, however, means the congregation is getting older. But Hayes points with joy to what she terms a “Youth Quake,” and influx of young people under the age of 30.
Twenty-four year old Steven Young of Canton, Massachusetts, is among the Millennial Generation finding its way to Dignity.
“The beauty of Catholicism,” he said recently after Mass, is the “attraction.” Beyond “smells and bells,” said Young, “there is a deep beauty to Catholicism that I grew up with and love.”
“Though the ritual may seem Medieval or last century, I think it holds deep meaning that is relevant today,” he said.
Despite the persistent Vatican’s hierarchical negativity about homosexuality, Young holds fast to his faith.
“I have come to the realization that the church is not perfect. It’s made up of imperfect people, and imperfect people are not always the most loving and don’t always have the best judgment,” he said.
“I don’t think I know God’s will better than anyone else. But I know what I know, and the truth I have about who I should love and whether that is sinful or not,” said Young. “I feel it deeply in my soul that being gay is not wrong [and] that I have to share with the rest of the Church,” he said. “If people are blind to that—all the more reason for sharing that truth with others.”
All of which speaks to what Dignity is celebrating over the past four decades. “Faith, community, vision, and courage,” said Duddy-Burke. “That’s what we offer to the LGBT movement and the church.” [x]
More information can be found at the Dignity Boston web site: www.dignityboston.org.
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