Rural Minnesota Catholic parish dismisses musicians over gay marriages
TAYLORS FALLS, Minn.—For weeks now, a Catholic parish in the rural St. Croix River Valley north of the Twin Cities has been praying through turmoil, brought by a trio of startling dismissals.
On one hand, even many of the most distressed don't want any of the 400 or so parishioners to leave the Church of St. Joseph in Taylors Falls and the Church of St. Francis Xavier in Shafer. On the other, some see a wounded spirit — a weakening of the backbone of inclusiveness that has kept the parish tight-knit for decades.
Last month, the congregations' three choral musicians were dismissed by a new priest. They now sing from the pews.
Carol Schwinghammer is one of several trustees torn about the reasons. During the week, she sits on the diversity and inclusion committee of a major Twin Cities corporation, which she asked not to be named. But on the weekends, she's the secretary of a small country church that just fired three musicians — one of whom has been with the church for 16 years — for being in same-sex marriages.
"I feel like a bit of a fraud, because I work with a lot of people who are gay and are married," she says. "I really struggle with it. It's daily I wonder why I remain as a trustee."
Still, she hesitates to tell people about the situation at the parish she's grown to love. She hadn't told her book club — or anyone in the larger secular world.
And at least one of the musicians at the heart of the debate feels the same way.
While Bob Bernard was dismissed from his position as the parish's only on-staff musician, he says, "We didn't want this to turn out to be another 'bash the Catholic Church' story, and we're emphatic about that."
Protests and finger-pointing, Bernard says, would be devastating to a parish that has always leaned inward. And, he feels, it would be worse than useless: causing "trauma" to those he loves.
"The resistance will equal any pressure. The needle's not going to move in either direction. There is a stasis in effect, more or less," Bernard says.
Larry Julik-Heine, a parish trustee who resigned in protest over the firings — and met with the Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis this week to discuss it — defers to the sentiment.
"Bob is a remarkable guy, and he's going to church every Sunday. He's keeping the faith, and his faith is deep. And it's remarkable."
NEW PRIEST IS WELCOMED
Sometime in November, the officers and trustees of the two churches in the cluster parish put together an advisory decision about their new pastor, the Rev. John Drees. Drees had replaced the old pastor in July and came in as a young parochial administrator — essentially a pastor in training, on a yearlong probation.
It would be difficult to overstate hyperbolize the parish's enthusiasm for Drees.
"It was a love-fest; we couldn't say enough good things about him. He was doing a good job," said Julik-Heine, the trustee who resigned over what came next.
"Then a week later he dropped a bomb."
The Dec. 10 church bulletin included a note by Drees. "We are so blessed with such talented musicians at our parishes," it said, then went on to say that Bernard "served his last Mass with us last week." No explanation was given. It went on to say that Travis Loeffler and Dominic Mitchell — a married duo who played at the services Bernard didn't — "will also no longer be playing music at our Masses."
Bernard had been an employee of the parish, while Loeffler was a volunteer, and his husband, Mitchell, had been an independently contracted musician, trustees said.
Weeks before, Bernard had a "tough discussion" with Drees. The new priest made the reasons for the dismissal clear: Bernard's marriage to a man went against the canon of the church that employed him.
Drees then spoke with the churches' four trustees. The musicians were being dismissed because their marriage was a public demonstration in opposition to church teachings, trustees heard. And Drees expressed confusion as to why nobody in the congregation had informed him of the marriages.
"I told Father Drees it's the nature and the makeup of this community," said Chris Hudspeth, a trustee and 40-year member of St. Joseph, the larger of the two churches. "That's why a lot of people come to Taylors Falls and St. Croix Falls (Wis.) — it's an inclusive community, and that's why he didn't hear anything."
That inclusiveness was particularly poignant for trustee Schwinghammer, a more recent arrival. She vividly remembers her parents' divorce, in the 1970s. She was 6 or 7 at the time, but "I knew my parents weren't welcome in the Church," she says. "I heard the rumblings.
"I'm at this point in my life, when I go to church and hear the word of God, I hear unity."
Added Julik-Heine, "Three out of four of us said no, this is not the way we do things around here," while the last trustee remained largely silent.
But all three felt Drees' news was a notification, rather than a debate.
SUPPORT IN THE FRONT PEWS
Though the church bulletin wasn't disseminated on paper until the sermons that Dec. 10 weekend, the internet had already sent a shockwave through the parish.
There were four services that weekend: one on Saturday, three on Sunday. Bernard, who'd been a member of the congregation for 15 years, was seated in the front row rather than at his piano.
Overtly, few words were said. The sermons didn't mention the musicians' dismissal. Two women had replaced them, and both sang beautifully.
But everyone in the congregation saw that the pews were a little more packed. Friends and family members who didn't usually come, came. In particular, the front pews where Bernard, his family and his fellow musician, Loeffler, sat, had no empty spaces.
The former church musicians were surprised. Many who didn't normally sit in the front pews were now close by.
"There were some people who I perceived would not be supportive, who turned out to be supportive," Bernard said. Which heartened him: "I've been discouraging people from leaving. I don't intend to leave."
There was no confrontation: The parish sang and prayed, like any other weekend. Bernard, among others, was fearful of the specter of marchers at the front door, holding signs.
"We made a point of discouraging people who weren't Catholic and wanted to make some kind of protest. We did not want that to happen," Bernard said. "It was important that the support come from inside the parish and not outside. The line was drawn at the front door."
CONCERNS AND SUPPORT
Drees, who responded to questions by email, largely declined comment on the dismissals.
"It is our practice not to comment publicly on parish personnel and employment issues out of respect for all involved and affected," Drees said, though he did add, when asked about his congregation's reaction to the dismissals: "I have heard from few parishioners. They have expressed their concerns but also their support and understanding."
The archdiocese replied to requests for comment with a written statement attributed to the Rev. Michael Tix, episcopal vicar for clergy and parish services, which said: "The Archdiocese does not comment on individual parish personnel decisions.
"Decisions regarding personnel in a parish setting rest with the pastor or parochial administrator of the parish and the Archdiocese recommends that he work in tandem with parish leadership and consult legal counsel," the statement added. "It's the pastor or administrator and his lay leaders who are best able to assess what is necessary for building a team that can give a credible witness to the Gospel in that community. We urge our pastors to be both fair and consistent in the applications of rules and standards."
Julik-Heine, who met with the archbishop Wednesday over the firing of the musicians, said of the meeting, "Well, we didn't change the church's teachings."
But, he added, "I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with him (the archbishop), because he seemed very concerned for all of us, to try to bring us all together."
Added longtime trustee Hudspeth: "We as trustees are not on a witch hunt. We are trying to keep our community together. We've got 400 parishioners; we're trying to keep it from going to 300 or less."
Still, she remembers the reason the majority of trustees disagreed with Drees' decision.
"It was more of a justice thing, more of a 'where is our church going, if we're kicking people who are living their faith and sharing their music ministry with us?' " Hudspeth said.
In a recent, book-length series of interviews published in September, Pope Francis said marriage can only be between a man and a woman, but he spoke in favor of civil unions, according to media outlets that reviewed the French transcripts.
"Let us call things by their names. Matrimony is between a man and a woman. This is the precise term. Let us call the same-sex union a 'civil union,' " he said in Politics and Society, a transcription of his conversations with a French sociologist.
Last year, in a paper outlining his stance on family matters, Francis urged churches to be more accepting of divorced Catholics, gays and lesbians.
During the 2012 debate over Minnesota's marriage amendment, then-Twin Cities' Archbishop John Nienstedt pushed hard for the constitutional amendment, which would have defined marriage as between only a man and a woman. He told priests and deacons that he expected them to support the marriage amendment and that "there ought not be open dissension on this issue." In response, a group of 102 former Minnesota Catholic priests came out publicly against the amendment.