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With “All Are Welcome” as Its Motto, New York Church Persists in LGBTQ+ Journey

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The Church of Saint Francis Xavier

In the National Catholic Reporter, a recent profile of a New York City parish highlighted its efforts to be widely inclusive, including of LGBTQ+ people. 

The Church of St. Francis Xavier in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood was the subject of NCR’s report about how the parish is redefining what acceptance in the church means.

According to NCR, “over the past 40 years since, it has stood out among others in the New York Archdiocese for its pastoral activities aimed at LGBTQ parishioners’ inclusion, its constant liturgical and eucharistic renewal to make the sacraments more accessible to everyone, and its mission to fight racism, poverty, hunger and homelessness.”

That commitment to greater LGBTQ+ inclusion is evident through dedicated small groups, educational programs, liturgical choices, and elements of the physical sacred space. For example, there is a small side altar consecrated as a memorial for those who have died of HIV/AIDS. The altar is dedicated to Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, patron of, among other things, AIDS patients and caregivers. For 10 years, the parish hosted “Gonzaga Group,” a place of spiritual support for LGBTQ+ parishioners living with HIV/AIDS. And in 1986, St. Francis Xavier was the first U.S. Catholic parish to hold a memorial service for a man who had died of AIDS.

Side altar of St. Aloysius Gonzaga at the Church of Saint Francis Xavier which honors those who died of AIDS

Narrowing in, the National Catholic Reporter told the story of two gay parishioners and the parish’s impact on their lives. John Uehlein, the parish’s current director of music ministries, was a member of the “Gonzaga Group” with his late partner, Jim Hanlon, until the group closed in 2006. According to the profile:

“It was Hanlon himself who had brought Uehlein back to the church in 1999, after years of spiritual distance. On the day of Hanlon’s funeral, Uehlein sat in the front pew of the church and listened to the bell choir, which he would normally direct. Six Jesuit priests concelebrated Mass, and the parish was packed with friends and relatives.

“When the choir played a Celtic tune called ‘Pulling Bracken,’ Uehlein got up and sat back with the choir, in the position that would have fallen to Hanlon, to play his partner’s part. At the end of the funeral, a piece of disco music blasted into the church, and all the attendees erupted in heartfelt applause as Hanlon’s coffin was carried out, Uehlein told NCR.

“‘He brought me to St. Francis Xavier, at a time when I was probably in one of the darkest periods of my life. Not sure where I was headed, not even living at home, I was living in a halfway house,’ said Uehlein.’That funeral was a true celebration of life.’”

Inspired by the parish’s motto, “All Are Welcome,” Uehlein strives to ensure that the parish’s musical repertoire truly sends that message.

The second story is of John Weber, who coordinates the Gay Catholics group at St. Francis Xavier. He first connected with the parish in the late 1990s after reading an article in The New York Times about the 1986 memorial and thought, “Maybe this is a home that I could belong to.” He cites a retreat for gay and lesbian parishioners as a major motivator for his increased participation and sense of welcome at the parish. Weber commented, “There was a full gamut of people on that retreat, who were striving for something more than what the church was able to offer.”

Efforts for LGBTQ+ equality look outward, too. St. Francis Xavier’s parishioners seek to bring Christ’s welcome beyond its walls by being “the first Catholic parish to march under its name” in New York City’s Pride Parade. The Gay Catholics ministry and the Catholic Lesbians ministry began this tradition in 1994, and the parish has continued to participate annually, except during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Additionally, the parish is a supporter of AIDS Walk NY, an annual fundraiser in support of HIV prevention and treatment in underrepresented communities.

In 2021, the Church of St. Francis Xavier was also featured in The New York Times for its welcoming efforts, alongside other New York City parishes like St. Ignatius and St. Paul the Apostle.

Looking for an LGBTQ-friendly parish? Check out New Ways Ministry’s list of parishes and faith communities that have provided some form of public welcome to LGBTQ+ people and their families. The list is available here.

Know of a parish or faith community that should be included on the list? Click here to let us know.

Looking to start or develop LGBTQ ministry at your parish? Consider New Ways Ministry’s “Next Steps” program as a tailored workshop specific to your community (information here) or order the book New Ways and Next Steps for a reading guid on how to do so (information here).

—Phoebe Carstens (they/them) and Robert Shine (he/him), New Ways Ministry, June 11, 2024


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