As Christmas Approaches, Priest Fires Three Gay Musicians, Dismisses Liturgical Minister

Bulletin announcing the firings

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

18 replies
  1. Friends
    Friends says:

    This guy has only been a priest for four years — and already he’s acting as though he holds more sovereign Church authority than Pope Francis himself! Here’s his self-created bio:

    I’d say he needs to go back to study “Caritas 101”, instead of behaving like a tinpot dictator. There’s more than a whiff of anti-sexual paranoia emanating from his attitude and his hateful actions. What Would Jesus Say? What Would Jesus DO? He is compromised in his ability to be a true pastor and a healer. And a priest for just four years? I’d say he’s much too young to be vested with such presumptive (and presumptuous) ecclesiastical authority. Why is Minnesota repeatedly in the news for exhibiting such horrible clerical malpractice?

  2. Leonard Telesca
    Leonard Telesca says:

    This priest is probably a frustrated closet gay man, who resents gay people who are comfortable and in loving relationships, he needs an adjustment.

  3. Tom Bower
    Tom Bower says:

    His mini-biography screams help me out of the box in which I am captured. Please someone in the parish give Fr. Drees a copy of Best Little Boy in the World for Christmas and remind him to love himself is as strong a command as to love God.

  4. Richard Boyle
    Richard Boyle says:

    Note again the action of exclusion did NOT emanate from the community but from a single, quite inexperienced priest, and that’s crucial. May the Sensus Fidei prevail over individual clerical authority, as an expression of the will of the Holy Spirit in the Body of Christ.

  5. Tom Gaudet
    Tom Gaudet says:

    This young cleric must be really proud of himself for championing the dogma of the Church over justice and mercy. Beware the young ones! They come out of seminary as new traditionalists determined to put the Holy Spirit in shackles and push the clerical agenda. They don’t get that the people in the pews, who are the Church, see right through it and reject it outright. May the people who make up this parish community continue to rise to the occasion of being mercy and justice with or without the pastor’s leadership. Just because he isn’t dong the Gospel does not mean the parish family can’t. It appears the vast majority do just fine in spite of Fr. Drees, definitely not because of him.

  6. Deacon Thimas Smith
    Deacon Thimas Smith says:

    Come on, Archbishop Bernard, step up! Have the courage of Jesus… Heal these unnecessary spiritual wounds on His birthday. Please use your authority to confront fear and injustice as He would do. You proved to be an intelligent, compassionate leader while you were with us in Newark. Your people need you now! Reinstate these faithful ministers.

  7. Patricia Vasilj
    Patricia Vasilj says:

    We should pray for this priest to open his hardened heart. I wonder what guidance Pope Francis would give to him. It reminds me of a discussion I had with two gentlemen who are part of a group known as Sashes. Catholics link their faith with their being Catholic. A priest can destroy that connection. Our Father in heaven has eternal love for “all” His children. I have seen this destruction personally. The LGBTQ community needs to know that they are loved and welcomed by their Church community and more importantly by God their Father.

  8. Fr.Vittorio Tucci
    Fr.Vittorio Tucci says:

    It is possible that this decision also came from a higher Diocesan authority!
    This priest is very young and needs to mature into the true spirit of Pope Francis!
    When and if He does mature, He will know that we are all God’s People! His decision may have resulted in a fear for his position in the parish. Vittorio Tucci, Holy Cross Parish Montreal, Canada.

  9. Simon
    Simon says:

    This situation of LGBT firings in the US is an absolute outrage. Can we have any confidence that church officials at the highest levels are aware of it? What is their response?

  10. Kevin Welbes Godin
    Kevin Welbes Godin says:

    Drees is another example of young, white, cleric men in power. Leonard’s comment could very well be this priest’s motivation. He can affect other people’s lives while going on with his hypocrisy. Another example of “look how they love one another.” What a pity. Wouldn’t it be great if parishioners stayed away at Christmas and withheld their money. Or maybe parish council could start asking some tough questions of Drees. Power to God’s people!

  11. Patrick Riley
    Patrick Riley says:

    That one priest is responsible for removing parishioners from ministry happens in most parishes, I think. When Fr. Plante, a more conservative priest, became pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in the Clarendon section of Arlington, VA, he made many personnel changes, including removing a (straight) woman from music ministry due to her marital situation. The chancelleries seem to seldom reverse these decisions made at the parish level.

  12. Bob Bernard
    Bob Bernard says:

    Bob Bernard here. Thanks everyone for your support. We ‘co-condemned’ have been humbled by the outpouring of affection and we would like to thank you all.

    I’d just like to make one point of clarification on the following:

    “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.’”

    Neither Dave nor I have any social media accounts, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram. We have no ‘postings’ anywhere, except the comment you are reading right now. Ergo, where did he get photos of us. Ick.

  13. Richard Boyle
    Richard Boyle says:

    “Asked for comment, the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis said it would not comment on parish personnel decisions.”

    What a typical dodge from sharing responsibility for the actions of one of their clergy. where is the Archbishop???

  14. Larry Julik-Heine
    Larry Julik-Heine says:

    I need to correct the article. I am one of the Trustees mentioned in the article, Larry Julik-Heine. In all fairness I chose to step down as Trustee, not dismissed.
    Thanks for supporting the cause.


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