An LGBTQ Catholic who refused to be sidelined by the church institution due to her sexual orientation, and who was a pioneer in her hometown for Catholic LGBTQ ministry and advocacy, has passed away.
Nickie Valdez entered eternal life at age 80 on Christmas Day at her home in San Antonio, Texas after an eight-year battle with multiple myeloma. A powerful force for LGBTQ inclusion in the Catholic Church, Valdez was the co-founder and president of Dignity/San Antonio, which works for full affirmation of LGBTQ Catholics in both their spirituality and sexuality.
Valdez came out to her family in the early 1960s, a rare and lonely time to do so, according to the San Antonio Express News. Her wife and partner of thirty-five years, Deb Myers, remembers she was “one of the first people to be out and open in San Antonio.” Valdez was reaching out to gay Catholics as early as the mid-1960s, several years before the formation of DignityUSA, according to Marianne Duddy-Burke, executive director of DignityUSA, who co-authored a remembrance of Valdez for the National Catholic Reporter:
“One of the things I found so remarkable about Nickie was she was doing the work of making a home for LGBTQI Catholics in our church…she was out there in the mid ‘60s, sitting on church steps, waiting for people who felt rejected by the church. She was there to talk to them, to assure them of God’s love, to talk about Scripture and sacraments with them.”
Valdez’s conviction of inclusion led her to lead Bible studies and prayer groups for queer Catholics during the 1960s, as well as to speak with many local religious communities, urging them to fully include and affirm LGBTQ people. Along with longtime friend Bruce Jarstfer, she established the San Antonio chapter of DignityUSA in 1976 and remained its leader until her death last month. Her finesse enabled the recruitment of many priests and sisters to involvement with Dignity/San Antonio, and also facilitated Dignity representatives serving on the Archdiocesan Justice and Peace Commission over the years.
It was through Dignity that Valdez met Myers in 1985. They were joined in holy union in 1989 and legally married in 2015. As a couple they led many of Dignity/San Antonio’s programs and liturgies, were leaders of DignityUSA’s Committee for Women’s Concerns, and headed DignityUSA’s Couples Ministry, which maintains a registry of couples who had celebrated their commitments before legal recognition and sends out anniversary cards each year. Valdez also served on the board of DignityUSA from 1997 to 2001. “She and Deb together took so many people into their homes, under their wings, just mentoring them, nurturing them one by one, giving housing to people who didn’t have housing because their families had rejected them,” remembers Duddy-Burke. “She definitely saved lives.”
María Berriozábel, an activist and the first Latina woman to serve on San Antonio’s City Council said that Valdez “figured out ways to practice her faith in a church that did not welcome her as a gay Catholic. In doing so she opened a space not only for LGBTQ individuals but also members of their families who were happy to pray along with their children, parents, and friends.”
Longtime friend Patricia S. Castillo, who joined the Episcopal church in the early 1990s, agreed: “I just got mad and said ‘I’m out of here’ and Nickie didn’t. Nickie said, ‘You will respect who I am, and I will remain in your faith as long as I live. And I will be acknowledged one way or another.” Castillo added:
“You talk about ‘speak truth to power’–that just floors me about her, that little, tiny woman…you could not make her stop, no matter what. She found all these little niches all over the community where her faith could be practiced. And she was not going to let that go, no matter what. To her, that was her church-and she was going to passionately defend her faith and her spirituality in that way until day she died.”
This contrast between her diminutive stature and colossal tenacity pervades the many recollections and accolades of friends and allies. Sr. Martha Ann Kirk, a Sister of Charity of the Incarnate Word and San Antonio educator active in social justice advocacy, remembers:
“Nickie has been a petite gentle spiritual giant leading me forward. Her firm love would not accept the actions of a civic or church leader who was trying to exclude an LGBTQ person or community. She knew herself as God’s Beloved. She stood there shining kindness, calling us beyond any narrow-mindness.”
In addition to her work for LGBTQ Catholics, Valdez volunteered for Switchboard, a local peer hotline for the gay community run by the San Antonio Free Clinic. She was active with the National Organization for Women, Forward Foundation, Pax Christi San Antonio, Esperenza Peace and Justice Center, San Antonio Equal Rights Political Caucus and other social justice groups both in Texas and at the national level.
Summing up her wife’s vocation, Deb Myers relates: “Her whole call was to help people recognize that they were created in the image and likeness of God, and God loved them just as they are created. She believed that to the core. She was very tenacious in that work and lived it.” That deep conviction will continue to comfort and inspire long after her death as an embodiment of prophetic hope and love.
“Nickie had more faith in her small finger than most of us will embody in a lifetime,” notes theologian Mary E. Hunt. “She and Deb were marvelous role models of lesbian women in coupled relationships who generate love and community wherever they go. Nickie, soft-spoken and of few words, was someone to whom I listened to hear Divine Wisdom. She never disappointed.”
Francis DeBernardo, executive director of New Ways Ministry, said he met Nickie at several Dignity events over the years and was always in awe of her humility. “She was a shining example of someone who lets her actions speak for her, rather than a lot of words. She never sought the limelight, though she certainly more than deserved it.”
—Angela Howard McParland, New Ways Ministry, January 15, 2020