For the 12-year-old student at St. Francis of Assisi School, wearing a favorite old tee shirt with a gay pride message on “Dress Down Day” was nothing new. She had worn it before on relaxed-dress-code days with no problem, she told The Brew.
But this past Friday, at the end of the mass that she and her classmates attended next door at St. Francis of Assisi Church in northeast Baltimore, the shirt caused a stir:
At Father John J. “Jack” Lombardi’s direction, witnesses told The Brew, the school principal directed the homeroom teacher to tell the girl her shirt would have to come off. The teacher made her remove it in front of the other students as they stood at the back of the church.
“For the rest of the day, everyone was very angry about it,” said her 7th grade classmate, Dylan Hoffman, speaking at this morning’s mass.
He and dozens of other students, as well as parents and other adults, showed up at the church wearing rainbow-striped gay pride Covid masks. Many also wore white tee shirts with the rainbow-hued message, “I am a child of god.”
Hoffman said the students organized this show of support as a way to stand with their classmate whose mother is gay.
“I think it was really awful what happened. The way they asked her to take it off was really embarrassing,” said Liam Hines, another 7th grader.
“It was like asking her to take off a piece of her family,” said Hines, of Lauraville. “We can’t let this slide. It was really cruel.”
“I’m very proud of these kids,” said his father, Sean Hines, who stood with his arm around his son and also wore a pride mask to the church service.
The student who was made to remove the shirt (whose mother asked that her name not be used) said that when she was instructed to do so, she “was left confused.”
The message on her rainbow-striped jersey, “PROUD 365,” is meant to show commitment to dignity and respect for LGBTQ people every day of the year, not just during Pride season.
After being told to take off the shirt, the student was summoned to the office by principal Karmen Collins, who told her she had violated the school’s dress code.
Did Collins explain further?
“She said it was because it was a Catholic school,” the student said. “I thought it was a poor excuse.”
If Lombardi noticed the plethora of gay pride masks dotting the congregation in the pews today, he showed no sign of it. (The tagline of his sermon was “Christ’s kingdom twists human fiefdoms.”)
But subtle acknowledgment up front came from two officiants, both of whom wore pride masks. Introducing the congregation’s Confirmation class, Lauren Voos noted that “All are Welcome” and “My heart is full of pride.”
Going off script, lector Beatrice Messaris managed to slip a blunt message about the incident in at the end of the intercessions, the call-and-response portion of the service:
“For marginalized orientations and gender identities. . .” she said, and the congregation answered with some extra volume: “Lord, hear our prayer.” ***
As the priest and congregants filed out of the church, located at 3615 Harford Road, Lombardi refused to discuss the incident.
“I’m going to remain peaceful today,” he said, referring The Brew to the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
In a statement emailed this afternoon, Christian Kendzierski, executive director of communications for the Archdiocese, defended Lombardi’s actions, offering this explanation for why the student “was asked to change their attire before returning to the classroom:”
“The attire contained imagery and language with a message that could be determined to oppose teachings of the Catholic Church,” Kendzierski wrote. “St. Francis of Assisi is a Catholic parish and school that upholds the tenets and teachings of the Catholic faith.”
Kendzierski disputed the eyewitnesses who said Lombardi directed the principal to have the student remove her Pride shirt. “It was the school administration that initiated the request,” he said.
Noting that “the church teaches that every person be treated with respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” he said the Archdiocese understands the concerns about what happened and is “working on plans to bring together the community to discuss this in an open, honest and listening way.”
“I have felt in danger recently”
Many of the adults participating in the protest said the harsh treatment of the student does not reflect their experience of the church prior to July, when Lombardi took over as pastor.
“My family is three generations at this church,” said protest supporter Meghan Murphy, who wore a shirt that said “Be you.”
“It’s always been blended and diverse here,” Murphy said.
According to its website, the church dates back to 1927 and the school to 1957.
“Our parish’s dedication to Catholic social teachings and social justice helps us to engage with our larger communities,” the church’s website says. “All Are Welcome here, and that’s a mantra we live by! There is a home for everyone here at SFA.”
Amelia Voos said the atmosphere at the church since Lombardi stepped in has turned hostile.
“As a queer woman, I never felt endangered before here, but I have felt in danger recently,” said Voos, a youth coordinator for the church for more than three years.
She said she and her mother, Lauren Voos, the church’s longtime religious education coordinator, have a long association family with St. Francis of Assisi.
“I grew up in this parish. To think that this is happening here is painful,” she said.
Amelia Voos said she and her mother resigned from their positions at the church last week, but that she was not able to discuss the specific incidents that motivated them to do so.
Speaking for the church, Kendzierski said he had no information on the matter. “As a personnel issue, the former employee would have, I hope, followed channels to report and therefore an investigation or query would have started,” he said.
Others who participated in today’s protest showed they still have positive feelings about the institution. A boy who wore a pride mask carried the communion hosts up to the front of the church. Some of the others in the church wearing pride masks could be seen dropping money in the collection basket.
As for the mother of the student at the center of the controversy, she said she is waiting for a response to her complaint to the Archdiocese’s superintendent of Catholic Schools.
“I hope it results in diversity and inclusion training for the staff and the church,” she said. “And an apology would be nice.”
*** This quote was originally misattributed to Lauren Voos.