Dignity/Chicago is one of the city’s foremost and longest serving GLBT organizations and the only GLBT Catholic organization to publicly affirm our sexuality as loving, life-giving and life-affirming. We continue to work toward and celebrate change in our church, support those who are questioning how to reconcile their faith and their sexuality, provide educational opportunities for members of the community and provide an affirming place of worship for GLBT people our families and friends.
Dignity/Chicago was formed in January of 1972, the fourth Dignity chapter in the nation, approximately one year after Ms. Mary Houlihan, a member of the Legion of Mary, began a home Mass for the gay and lesbian community under the Legion’s aegis. Following Dignity’s formation, the chapter was asked to assume sponsorship of this Mass. Dignity then secured St. Sebastian Church for a weekly Sunday evening Mass which continued until 1988.
The 1970’s were an active time for the chapter. It played host to the national convention of DignityUSA in 1977, was a charter member of Call to Action, an umbrella organization for progressive Catholic groups, and co-sponsored the Orange Ball, a Chicago benefit to raise funds to combat Anita Bryant-backed anti-gay referendums around the country.
The 1980’s were challenging for Dignity/Chicago as the chapter grew to over 150 members. In May of 1988, after sixteen years of ministry, the chapter membership voted to remove its ministry from St. Sebastian Church and all church property rather than submit to a demand from Cardinal Joseph Bernardin to withdraw Dignity’s public statement affirming homosexuality which said “we believe that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons can express their sexuality in a manner that is consonant with Christ’s teaching. We believe that we can express our sexuality physically, in a unitive manner that is loving, life-giving and life-affirming.” After leaving St. Sebastian’s Dignity/Chicago began meeting in a series of welcoming Protestant churches before settling at Broadway United Methodist in 1992.
In the 1990s Dignity/Chicago reasserted its role as a Roman Catholic faith community ministering the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Dignity has continued to protest the denial of its place in the life of the Church and has responded to statements issued from the Church that would encourage discrimination against LGBT people in both religious and civil life. In 1992 we brought our call for justice to the home of Cardinal Bernardin in a prayerful protest. In 1999, the chapter was reorganized to focus on the three core ministries that underlie its mission: Worship, Spiritual Growth, and Leadership and Advocacy. From this base, Dignity/Chicago continues to provide the Mass and other liturgical services while remaining involved in many social and social justice and educational events in the community. In the summer of 2001, Chicago again hosted the DignityUSA convention.
Today, we are the third longest-serving DignityUSA chapter continuing our work for respect and justice for all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in the Catholic Church and the world and ministering through education, advocacy and worship. And we continue to gather for worship each Sunday at 5:00, as we have for nearly 40 years.
April 25, 2012
The 40th anniversary seems a good time to provide more information about Dignity/Chicago's beginnings for the chapter's records before it is lost for good.
In November 1971 five people-Jim Hogan, Steve Ryan, John Sattlmeier, Frank Surge and Jim Voepel-met with Father Max, Cardinal Cody's liaison to Chicago's gay and lesbian community to discuss the possibility of forming a Chicago chapter of a new national organization of gay and lesbian Catholics called Dignity. (The inclusive "LGBT" had not yet come into use.) They contacted the Dignity national office in Los Angeles and learned that one of the original Dignity/National board members, Fred Fisher, was then living in the Chicago area. They got in touch with Fred, and he became their contact person with the national office.
In February 1972 they called a meeting of anyone interested in forming a local chapter of Dignity. 24 people attended, 10 of whom volunteered to serve as a committee to lay the groundwork for the organization, with Fred Fisher as chairman.
In May 1972 Father Max called a meeting of participants in the mass for the gay and lesbian community to announce that he was turning the management of the mass over to Dignity/Chicago. Until that time it had been under the control of Mary Houlihan, who had originated it in 1970 under the auspices of the Legion of Mary, a Catholic outreach. Father Max believed it was the Legion of Mary's duty to step aside when those it was helping were ready to manage their own affairs. He believed the advent of Dignity provided a group of capable gay and lesbian people who could assume the responsibility. Mrs. Houlihan's strenuous objections to this decision offended many, who voted with their feet by joining Dignity. The chapter's numbers grew and the members were united in solidarity in the face of the continuing hostility of those who resented Father Max's move in spite of an open invitation to participate. Because these events were of great importance in the chapter's early history, the month of May was chosen as the appropriate time to celebrate Dignity/Chicago's anniversary.
In September 1972 the first election of officers was held. The plan was to elect a nine member board that would serve as a collective presidency, administered by a chairman. Frank Surge was elected chairman. In practice the duties and responsibilities of president fell to the chairman and in time the members recognized this reality by creating the office of president and choosing to refer to past chairmen as presidents. During the year following the first election, besides writing a constitution, the chapter focused on addressing the spiritual, social, and educational needs of the members and educating priests and theologians about the lives of gay and lesbian Catholics. At that time the atmosphere in the church seemed more conducive to hope for the possibility of change than it became during later papacies.
In September 1973 a sizeable contingent of Chicagoans attended the first Dignity/National convention in Los Angeles.
In October 1973 Dignity/Chicago had 100 members.
1969 Fr. Patrick X. Nidorf, an Augustinian priest and psychologist, formed a group of, “Catholic gay people”. He chooses the name “Dignity” for the group.
1971 Mary Houlihan of the Legion of Mary receives permission from Cardinal Cody to sponsor a Mass for the GLBT community. The first mass is at St. Sebastian in May. Previously Masses were held in homes.
1972 Dignity/Chicago chapter is chartered in November. Friction arose between the Mass Community and the D/C Chapter. The decision to celebrate the chapter anniversary in May was made in 1983.
1975 Dignity/Chicago participates in Chicago’s Gay Pride parade for the first time.
1977 The third biennial Dignity convention is held in the Bismarck Hotel. Fr. John McNeill, invited as a speaker, but sends a letter stating he will remain silent in obedience to a directive from Rome. A copy of the letter is spotlighted on an empty chair at the beginning of the convention and is then read to delegates. Jim Bussen serves as Regional Director for three years.
1978 Dignity/Chicago is a co-founder of Call to Action.
1980 In February, the Association of priests of the Archdiocese of Chicago honors Dignity/Chicago as “Organization of the Year”.
1982 Dignity/Chicago receives its non-profit 501 © 3 status with the IRS. Bill Seng is elected as Regional Director.
1984 Jack Delaney elected as Regional Director and to the National Board as a member.
1985 Jim Bussen and Jim Pilarski are elected as National Board officers at the New York convention.
1987 In the September 14 issue of People Magazine, an article appears entitled: “Nine Americans the Pope Won’t Want to Meet and Why”. Among the pictured nine was National Board President and Dignity/Chicago leader, Jim Bussen.
1988 In May, Cardinal Bernardin advises Dignity/Chicago that a new ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics would be formed at St. Sebastian’s. The ministry would be guided by several principles, one of which is that “homosexual acts” are “immoral”. Under the leadership of then-President Mike Savage, seventy percent of Dignity/Chicago’s membership voted to reject the idea of a Dignity chapter without control of its own Mass. Since then, Dignity-sponsored liturgies have been conducted at non-Catholic churches. During the 1980’s, most of the founding members of Chicago’s first AIDS hospice were members of Dignity.
1992 Dignity/Chicago members participate in a candlelight prayer service to challenge the Archdiocese’s silence on anti-gay violence. Chicago’s Advisory Council on Gay and Lesbian issues honored several Dignity/Chicago members by being inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
1997 Dignity/Chicago observed its 25th anniversary with a year-long celebration of educational and social events.
1999 Dignity/Chicago re-organized into three core ministries: leadership and advocacy, liturgy and spiritual growth. During various times in the 1990’s, chapter leaders meet with Cardinal Bernardin.
2001 The biennial Dignity National convention is held in Chicago in July. Chapter members and delegates conduct a prayer vigil at Holy Name Cathedral.
2003 Marty Grochala joins the DignityUSA Board of Directors. A full-page ad appears in the November 12 edition of the Chicago Tribune calling upon the USCCB to respect the lives and faith of LGBT Catholics. The ad is later presented to Bishop Wilton Gregory at the USCCB meeting in Washington DC.
2005 The September issue of Chicago Magazine features chapter president Ramon Rodriguez as part of a special report, “The Catholics of Chicago”. Dignity/Chicago receives a Donor level contribution to fund the Equality Forum film project, “Saint of 9/11”.
2006 In December, Dignity/Chicago responds to the Community Challenge Phase of the Center on Halsted Street Capital campaign with a gift. It allows the chapter to create a legacy for the organization, our youth and community.
2007 Linda Pieczynski and Ramon Rodriguez join the DignityUSA Board of Directors. Members of the chapter’s leadership meet with Cardinal George at various times during the 2000’s.
2011 Dignity/Chicago welcomes two ordained women presiders. In December, the chapter’s leadership publicly responds to Cardinal George’s comparison of LGBT parade marchers to the Ku Klux Klan. The Cardinal subsequently apologizes.
2012 Dignity/Chicago celebrates its 40th anniversary. The chapter’s float is the leader of the LGBT faith community in the Pride Parade and is featured by name in a local televised broadcast.
Dignity in the early days.
It was a warm August afternoon when I first walked up the steps of St. Sebastian Church in 1975 to attend a Dignity mass. I went to meet a friend that had promised to be there inside the church waiting for me. At that time you would not wait outside for fear of being seen by others. You must remember that even though Stonewall had happened in 1969 and a ray a hope was created by those brave actions in New York City, that was NYC and this was Chicago, and things were different then. Bars were still very clandestine destinations entered though dark alleys late at night. Bar windows were painted to make sure that no one was seen. Police still raided the bars in the Chicago of the early 70’s and names of those rounded up were printed in the newspapers for all to read about in the morning. We read of suicides committed by people finding their names in the morning paper. Somehow these justified the idea that the person was guilty. But of what? Being gay was still a disgrace and people lost their families and their jobs if discovered. So as a young man recently arrived in Chicago, going into a gay mass in broad daylight was frightening.
Once inside I met my friend and promptly took a seat for mass to begin. As I looked around I saw over 100 people in that church, men and women, ‘regular’ people who had all come together for the same reason: to worship at a Catholic Mass. It was incredible! Lights were on. People weren’t hiding in a dark bar but out in the open. I had never seen so many gays and lesbians in one place at the same time. The irrational fear of being discovered, outed, reported at work still lingered, but there I stayed. When the organ began the processional and everyone started to sing, it dawned on me that I really wasn’t in Kansas any more! Church congregations were mostly silent at that time with only a few making a feeble attempt to intone even the most well known songs, and here everyone was singing with strength and conviction. Yes, this was not going to be your everyday church!
The liturgy strictly followed the Church’s guidelines without any variations. It was a ‘real’ mass for ‘real’ gay and lesbian Catholics and there could be no divergence that would cause any criticism of its validity. Although the congregation was replete with a wide variety of clergy, I most remember 3 priests who were very influential in celebrating mass and working with Dignity Chicago in the beginning: Fr. Rick Woods, O.P. (currently River Forest, IL), Fr. Mario DiCicco, O.F.M. (currently San Francisco, CA), and Fr. Michael Jacobson (desceased). Each was so different and distinct; tall – short, large – small, witty – serious, intellectual – emotional, and yet they were there for us. They laughed with us and supported us in our pain. These were men saw the craving in the GLBT community to worship in a safe space and to have the opportunity to meet others like themselves and to know that they were not alone. Fr. Rick Woods, a prolific writer, used his experience with Dignity and a survey of the membership to write his book, “Another Kind of Love”, the back section of which contains quotes from our fellow Dignitaries of that time. Fr. Mario began the “Married Men’s Group” which met to discuss the integration of faith, sexuality and family among gay married men. This group widely represented a greater Chicago and comprised attorneys, doctors, judges, partners of major Chicago firms, as well as other professionals. Fr. Michael was broadly inclusive and forward thinking. Weekend Dignity retreats were well attended often having 40-50 participants, and as a leader at one of our retreats Fr. Michael led us to discuss the need for inclusive language and the feminine nature of the divine.
It was not until the 1980’s that I got to know the numerous Jesuits, Sacred Heart Fathers, Viatorians, other Franciscans and many other clergy that were among the congregation and sometimes celebrating mass. (They were there all along but I did not get to know them personally until later.) It was wonderful to have a place in which both laity and ordained ministers were comfortable being together and sharing their lives and beliefs together. There was a true sense of church and communal worship at St. Sebastian’s on Sunday evenings. After mass there was a social hour at which I met Dignity members who had been coming since the very beginning. One man, only a few years older than myself, told me of how he had come every Sunday for months and walked up and down the block trying to get the courage to come into the church. The fear of repercussions of being seen to enter the church during a ‘gay’ mass or of being recognized by someone inside had kept him in turmoil for all these months. When he finally had the strength to come inside, he said that he had met so many others who had done the same thing and knew of others that were still trying to make the breakthrough of entering. We talked about how many only came after the mass had started so that they could sit in a hidden back pew or left right after communion so as not to be seen. Being anonymous was still important and as in the bars, very few ever gave a last name. If you became a member of the organization you would get a membership card with a phone number to call on the back if you were picked up in a raid or needed bail money. It was a way that members could support members, and helped to allay the fears caused by raids on the bars.
I made some of my best friends at these social hours. At that time, St. Sebastian’s was the only place to meet others outside of the ‘bar scene’. Catholic or not, religious or not, they came for the safe space that Dignity afforded them. There were no ‘gay centers’, no ‘social clubs’, no sports leagues, no Internet ‘connections’ and so, many Protestants and even Jews came to St. Sebastian’s to find gay friends. Today none of my friends from the 70’s come to Dignity. Some have moved out of town, some are aligned with other organizations closer to their own beliefs, some have gone to their parishes and worship with their local GLBT groups, others have lost their connection to the Roman Church and others have passed on. But it was Dignity that brought us all together at the start of our ‘gay lives’ and became the bond that was forged our friendships of the past 40 years.
The late seventies ushered in many changes to Chicago. From Disco to The Bistro, everything was growing rapidly. Bars opened along Clark and Hubbard and Illinois Streets and that area of town was the gay Mecca for the young. The raids had stopped and gay life became more open, yet still not accepted nor legal. Dignity also grew. With weekly attendance over 100 and a soaring membership, Sunday mass now had greeters, lectors, Communion ministers, a weekly program/bulletin, choir director Patrick O’Hogan, organist, asocial committee, and an outreach committee. Dignity began to thrive and to discover its place not only as a refuge but also as an organization to be active in our church and community. Our mission was to “reconcile gays with the church” but it quickly extended beyond that. The early days of the eighties took Dignity to Wichita, KS to make a stand against the repeal of their gay rights ordinance. But that and other community activism I’ll leave for the person discussing the 80’s.
Although the number of women attending Dignity remained small, future leaders began to attend. Arlene Halko, a noted medical physicist, began attending Dignity along with me in 1975 and would become the first lesbian president of Dignity Chicago. She would serve two terms as president and be on the Board for five years. As president she hired our first female chaplain, Sister Lois, who became our first woman homilist at mass.
AIDS awareness came very personally to Dignity when in 1984, David, who had moved to NYC only the year before died suddenly of the disease. I had visited him only a few weeks before his death and we had talked about Dignity Chicago and all of his friends here. Fr. Carl Meirose S.J., offered our first mass for him and the victims of AIDS on the day of his burial. Then AIDS began to hit Chicago full force. In 1985 Arlene was one of the nine cofounders of Chicago House and as owner of Piggens Pub organized the first tag days and fundraisers for HIV/AIDS in Chicago. She, along with many other Dignity members, were on the front line when AIDS was still considered a ‘gay’ disease. The coordination and contribution of members from the lesbian community and Dignity Chicago were primary in Chicago’s response to this disease.
From “Ten Who Stayed: Ideology and Membership Commitment in a Complex Voluntary Association,” a thesis for a Master of Liberal Studies degree from DePaul University, June 2000.
In 1988, Dignity/Chicago had about 180 members and an even larger turnout for its Sunday evening Mass. The chapter had its own office a few blocks from events and an annual retreat. Members who wished to could participate in small-group St. Sebastian’s Church. A member of the chapter was paid to provide part-time administrative support. An all-male slate of officers was completing its second term. There were regular social home discussions that were facilitated by a priest. These meetings were not official Dignity events, but the chapter publicized them. There was a ministry team composed of four lay member and four priests. A policy of Dignity/Chicago limited the priests on the ministry team to a two-year term after which they were able to preside at Mass only if no current member of the ministry team were available. This policy reflected the availability of priests to the chapter and a certain anti-clerical spirit. During Eastertime of 1988, three men completed the Roman Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. St. Sebastian’s parish was the nominal sponsor of this process, but, except for the Easter Vigil, all other aspects of the program were conducted under Dignity’s auspices. The chapter had an overwhelmingly male membership. However, the chapter had a policy that required the use of some inclusive language in liturgical prayers and readings, for example, the substitution of “God” for “Father”. There was an effort to encourage the few women who were present to be lectors or Eucharistic ministers at the Sunday liturgies.
After the 1986 Ratzinger letter and the subsequent expulsion of other Dignity chapters from Catholic Church property, there was anxiety about the chapter’s continued access to St. Sebastian’s parish. The chapter instituted a monthly lay-led prayer service in anticipation of a possible loss of access to ordained presiders for its Masses. One Sunday in May 1988, members were urged to attend an important meeting immediately after Mass. They were told by representatives of Cardinal Bernadin that within a few weeks, six local pastors would assume responsibility for a new ministry to gay and lesbian Catholics at St. Sebastian’s. The ministry would be guided by several principles, one of which was that all homosexual acts are immoral. The pastors would be responsible for the Mass at which Dignity would have no role.
In some other cities, bishops had simply expelled the chapters from Catholic parishes or other buildings. In a few cities, the bishop gave the chapter a chance to sign a statement of agreement with Church teaching on homosexuality. One chapter did, but later rescinded its repudiation. In Chicago, in the months before the chapter meeting in May, 1988, Cardinal Bernadin conducted secret negotiations with the chapter officers who agreed to support the archdiocese. However, some members of the Board of Directors and other chapter members became aware of the “secret negotiations.” When the announcement was made, there were already arrangements made for Dignity’s liturgies to be conducted at a Lutheran church. At a very emotional meeting, seventy percent of the members voted to reject the idea of a Dignity chapter without control of its own Mass. When the change of location took place, some priests from Wisconsin and Michigan took turns traveling to Chicago to preside at Dignity Masses. However, the majority of those who had been participating in Dignity’s Mass at St. Sebastian’s went neither to Dignity’s new location nor to the new official archdiocesan Mass.
Initially, a small percentage of Dignity members and some of the priests continued at St. Sebastian’s under the sponsorship of the archdiocese. The priests and the members who opted for Cardinal Bernadin’s new ministry seem to have been willing to overlook the principles under which the Mass was offered in return for the opportunity to worship in Catholic church space and to have ecclesiastical approval of their gatherings.
Some Dignity members conducted “informational picketing” at St. Sebastian’s Church for the first few Sundays after Dignity’s expulsion. On one Sunday, a large group of Dignity members went to Mass together at Holy Name Cathedral. They had no plans to disrupt the service (unlike in New York where some Dignity members were arrested and the chapter split into two factions over the activism issue). Nevertheless, a large number of police vehicles had arrived at the cathedral by the end of the Mass. Dignity members also picketed a retreat house where for years the chapter had held an annual retreat and which had reneged on an agreement for a forthcoming retreat.
Cardinal Bernadin tried unsuccessfully to persuade the Lutheran bishop to prevent Dignity from renting space in the Lutheran church. The expulsion was widely reported in the local gay and mainstream press and in the national Catholic press. Commonweal, a moderate lay-edited Catholic magazine, chided Dignity/Chicago for not cooperating with Cardinal Bernadin . Once the press lost interest in the situation, local priests again began presiding at Dignity liturgies, without any interference from Cardinal Bernadin
Several months after the expulsion from Catholic Church property, some members expressed the opinion that, since Dignity no longer needed to fear retribution from the archdiocese, it was time for non-ordained members to preside at the chapter’s liturgies. The community was split on the issue and no action was taken. Because of a scheduling conflict at the Lutheran parish, Dignity/Chicago began having its liturgies at a Unitarian Church. At first, the chapter had to scale down some of its non-liturgical ministries and programs, but gradually there were new members who had not experienced the trauma of the 1988 expulsion (commonly inaccurately referred to as “the split”). However, the chapter never has come close to its 1988 membership numbers.