Step inside the recreation center at Saint Luke and the Epiphany on Sunday evenings and you’ll find a traditional celebration of mass. Except in this case, the priest is a married woman.
Nestled in the heart of the Gayborhood is Dignity Philadelphia, a church for LGBTQ practicing Catholics and allies.
Inside the space on 13th Street between Pine and Spruce, metal folding chairs replace church pews. Hymns and prayers are modified to include gender-nonconforming language. And a red banner hangs behind the altar, bearing the names of congregants who died, some from gun violence, some from the AIDS epidemic — all of them a part of a legacy of existing in exuberant protest that’s been going strong for half a century.
“It was really an amazing experience, to feel so comfortable and immediately embraced, in part because I recognize some of the names on the wall,” said Kathleen Gibbons Schuck, 67, who recalled seeing the red banner during her first time presiding over mass.
Founded in 1973, Dignity Philadelphia has been progressive in allowing married people, women and LGBTQ people to lead mass, as well as involving lay people in leadership decisions.
“I think the greater church could benefit from recognizing that, you know, your gray haired [male] pastor isn’t the only one with a perspective here,” said Schuck, who was ordained by a movement called the Roman Catholic Womenpriests.
Outside of hosting Dignity mass in its rec center, St. Luke’s is an Episcopal Church with significant LGBTQ+ membership.
Nationwide, over 2 million LGBT people (the term used in the study) also say they are religious, according to a 2020 report by UCLA’s Williams Institute, with nearly 25% of adults identifying as Catholic. Still, a growing number of teens consider themselves religiously unaffiliated. That’s where spaces like Dignity come in.
“People come along and question things. We do something different,” said Dignity Philadelphia board member Kaeden Thompson, 30, of Kensington. “Young queer people deserve spirituality, deserve faith, deserve communities where they feel loved and accepted for who they are.”
Dignity is a nationwide movement with chapters in over 30 locations around the U.S. The organization, and its Philly chapter, were founded in the years after Vatican II, a council convened in Rome by Pope John XIII from 1962 to 1965.
This period of Catholic church history is often cited as the genesis for more widespread social justice teachings, in addition to an updated liturgy that gave a larger role to lay people and other fundamental changes.
“It was really exciting. It made you feel like you were really a Christian, that you were taking on the message of Jesus and proclaiming it and celebrating it at liturgies,” said Sister Jeannine Gramick, who was instrumental in Dignity Philadelphia’s founding.
At the organization’s 50th celebration in May, she was recognized with a lifetime achievement award.
It was 1971 when, as a student at the University of Pennsylvania, Gramick attended a mass at someone’s home and met Dominic, a gay man who confided that he and his friends felt alienated by the church at large.
Gramick then started organizing masses for Dominic and his friends in his apartment. Local priests Father Paul Morrissey and Father Bob Nugent presided. Gramick helped Nugent, Morrissey and another priest, Myron Judy, to form Dignity Philadelphia.
What resulted was a ministry focused on community-building. It drew on the liberation theology popular in some Latin American countries, which places the needs of poor or disenfranchised people at the center of church work and interpretation of scripture.
Dignity has helped thousands of LGBTQ Catholics throughout the years, Gramick said. The organization’s work has also reached the higher echelons of the church. During a Dignity national convention in the 80’s, Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen allowed members to celebrate mass at St. James Cathedral, the seat of the archdiocese, which angered conservative Catholics and ruffled more than a few feathers at the Vatican.
Today, the Philadelphia chapter aims to be an intergenerational space, where younger people can gain wisdom from more senior members.
“Being around, learning from and hearing direct stories from queer elders has been a big thing for me,” said Kate Huffman, 29, a member of Dignity, who lives in Kensington. “I grew up in a place where I thought I was the only gay person. Just having that has been really meaningful and lovely.”
LGBTQ Catholics know advocating for their rights — both in and outside of the church — is an ongoing battle, but they don’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“We are here,” said Thompson, the Dignity Philadelphia board member, “and we have always been here.”