With Christmas approaching, news has broken that three parish musicians were fired from their positions at two Minnesota parishes because they are in same-gender marriages. Resistance against the decision led to the further dismissal of a parish leader from liturgical ministries.
Fr. John Drees, the young parochial administrator of St. Joseph and St. Francis Xavier Churches in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, fired Bob Bernard, Travis Loeffler, and Dominic Mitchell because of their same-gender marriages. National Catholic Reporter explained:
“The three musicians were dismissed from the parish’s music ministry Dec. 5. Bernard was informed of his termination after morning Mass that day.
“‘I was scheduled to have a meeting with Fr. Drees about plans for Advent and Christmas music. And then when I sat down, he said that’s not what I really wanted to talk to you about,’ Bernard told NCR.
“According to Bernard, the priest said the longtime accompanist could not continue in that role because his marriage to his husband, Dave, presented a situation that ‘was confusing to the parishioners.'”
Bernard, who had served the parish for fifteen years, had told the priest about his September wedding. Couple Loeffler and Mitchell had not shared news of their wedding with the priest, and they were not given an explanation as to the cause of their firing. Asked by them why they had been fired, Drees said he was “not prepared to say.” NCR reported further:
“What also remained unclear was how Drees knew of their marriage. Unlike Bernard, the two never disclosed their marriage to the parish. And while they regularly played together, with Mitchell on the piano and Loeffler providing vocals, they were intentional in avoiding any outward signs of their relationship.
But trustees for the two parishes have suggested Drees did research on his own to find out about the couple’s marital status. The four trustees met with the priest in the weeks preceding the firings, during which Drees asked whether the trustees knew of the marriages and was surprised when three of the four trustees answered yes:
“‘He seemed disappointed with the parishioners that nobody thought this was a bad thing and brought it up to him,’ said Chris Hudspeth, a trustee at St. Joseph where she has been a parishioner for four decades. . .
“According to the trustees, Drees responded to a question about how he found out about the musicians’ marriages by saying someone had informed him, which led him to conduct his own online inquiry. The priest also indicated he noticed Loeffler and Mitchell arrived at Mass together in the same car and departed at the same time. At the St. Francis trustee meeting, Carol Schwinghammer said she noticed a photo of Bernard and his husband in the stack of papers in front of Drees.
“When asked if he conducted online research into the marital status of any of the three men, Drees told NCR in an email, ‘Social media and other online outlets are public. We teach our schoolchildren and our employees to be careful what they post online, and, as employees, we all must adhere to Catholic teaching in our postings.'”
The trustees all rejected Drees’ decision to fire the musicians. Larry Julik-Heine said, “it was wrong, discriminatory, and I just could not agree.” He resigned as a trustee after almost two decades of service, and NCR reported:
“After making that decision, Julik-Heine told NCR that Drees informed him he could also no longer serve as a lector or eucharistic minister in the parish, and that he would likely refuse him the sacraments; days later, the priest said he would still offer him the Eucharist, but the bar on liturgical roles stood.
“‘I felt like I was basically kicked out of the church,’ Julik-Heine said. ‘… That put a big hole in my heart, to be honest. Because I’ve done so much at St. Joe’s over the years and it’s a big part of my life.'”
Other parishioners at the small churches have joined Julik-Heine in being overwhelmingly supportive. Two of the fired musicians, Bernard and Loeffler, were present at each Mass the following weekend, singing from the front pews. Bernard said:
“‘We wanted to make sure that we were present. . .We didn’t want people to think that we were afraid, and we didn’t want people in any way to be upset or despairing that they weren’t going to see us again.'”
Family, friends, and supporters, including three members of the parish’s four-person trustee council, sat with them:
“Of the roughly 50 to 100 people in attendance at each, it was estimated close to half were present in support for their former musicians. By all accounts, the circumstances at the Saturday night Mass at St. Joseph that landed Loeffler and Bernard in a pew rather than the regular choral spot — two female cantors filled in — resulted in a beautiful harmony filling the church.
“Even more moving to the two men was the overwhelming support they felt from their parish community, including people they didn’t know well or from whom they had expected a different reaction to their dismissal.”
Among those supporters Jamie Manzi-Moore, a former parish musician who lost his job in 2014 after entering a same-gender marriage, a firing in which Fr. Drees may have played a part:
“According to [St. Francis trustee Carol] Schwinghammer, during the first meeting Drees said that while at a prior parish he had addressed at a similar situation at a nearby church. When Bernard confronted Drees about whether he had informed [former Archbishop John] Nienstedt of Moore’s marriage, he told NCR that the priest ‘was shocked to hear me ask that question, and he said, ‘Yes.’
“Drees, in response to a question from NCR, denied that he had informed Nienstedt about Manzi-Moore’s marriage. He did not respond to a follow-up question whether he had any involvement in the archbishop or archdiocese learning about Manzi-Moore’s marital status.”
Many people, including the remaining trustees, are concerned about the impact these firings will have on the parish:
“Some parishioners have begun talking about withholding financial support of the parish, or withdrawing from it entirely. Others fear that showing support for the musicians could lead to their own removal from roles in the liturgy and parish, as well.
“‘I really am concerned that it is going to negatively impact the community. And I see it personally, I see it as discriminatory,’ Schwinghammer said. The situation with the musicians reminded her of her own experience as a child, with her parents divorced, of feeling not welcomed in the church.”
But the musicians are resolved to stay in the Church, and their fellow parishioners’ support has made clear they are still welcome in the community for Loeffler and Bernard:
“While Mitchell said he plans to attend Mass elsewhere for the foreseeable future, Bernard and Loeffler were back at St. Joseph on Sunday morning. ‘We sang our hearts out from the pews,’ according to Bernard, and afterward, met friends they didn’t know they had. Drees even greeted Bernard after Mass. . .
“‘I feel like my gifts and talents are a calling, and I would like to be the change that we seek, as far as the Catholic Church goes. And I feel like if I leave it, I’m not fulfilling my calling,’ Mitchell said.
“Loeffler said leaving would feel “like the easy way out.” He hopes the support they’ve received can show other homosexual men and women who feel driven from their communities that there are Catholics who ‘knowingly and openly support gay men and women. That they’re not afraid of them, they welcome them.’
“‘We don’t want this to be another story for people to dislike the Catholic Church. We are still parishioners of the Catholic faith after this. This didn’t drive us away,’ Loeffler said.”
Asked for comment, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis said it would not comment on parish personnel decisions.
The three musicians join more than 70 church workers who have lost their jobs in LGBT-related employment disputes over the last decade, and this number includes only those church workers who stories have become public.
This situation just outside Minneapolis is particularly traumatic with not one, but four parishioners being ejected from ministry over the issue of marriage equality. It reveals both how devastating these discriminatory acts are to local communities as well as the faithful resolve of LGBT Catholics to remain in the church in the face of such abuse, and the hospitable resolve of the lay faithful to welcome them.
What is most alarming is that one priest, Fr. Drees, now seems responsible for unjustly removing at least five Catholics from ministry. His actions continue to wound God’s people entrusted to his care. The archdiocese may not wish to comment publicly on the matter, but the priest’s inappropriate management and potentially unhealthy state need to be addressed quickly. This Christmas, Archbishop Hebda should give the parishioners of St. Joseph and St. Francis Xavier the gift of justice they so rightly deserve.
—Robert Shine, New Ways Ministry, December 23, 2017