When the choir rose to sing at Holy Family Catholic Parish in Rockford, Ill., it was not part of the program. It was a protest. The firing of a gay music director has split the congregation at Holy Family, the largest Roman Catholic church in this industrial city of 150,000.
Bill Stein, the music director and organist for five years, was fired June 17 after he refused church leaders' request that he promise to lead a "chaste" life--a vow he equated with giving up his partner of 10 years, Manny Ahorrio. Stein said he neither flaunted nor hid his relationship; a few parents learned he is gay when they heard that he was trying to adopt a child. "I was fired based on church law," Stein said. "There was no mention of Gospel. There was no mention of what Jesus taught us: compassion, love, forgiveness, and charity."
Stein's supporters see hypocrisy in the firing, noting that the Catholic Church is embroiled in scandal for keeping child-molesting priests in the clergy for years. Others applaud the church for refusing to bend under pressure to ignore Catholic teachings.
The dispute spilled out in church on Sunday, when both the priest's sermon on Catholic teachings--including those on sexuality--and the choir's unscheduled song for their fired leader drew applause from separate parts of the sanctuary.
Calls and E-mails to Holy Family were not immediately returned. The church's pastor, Monsignor Tom Bales, is on medical leave, and its administrator, Monsignor David Kagan, is out of the country. Penny Wiegert, a spokeswoman for the Rockford Diocese, said she could not comment on personnel matters. But she did say the Catholic Church is clear that its employees must follow church teachings, including a prohibition on sex outside of marriage. "We aren't talking about a particular lifestyle," she said. "We are simply talking about what the Catholic Church and Catholic teachings expects of its leaders as well as the people in the pews."
Choir members have written letters to the editor of the Rockford Register Star and taken out a half-page ad in support of Stein that is scheduled to run over the Fourth of July weekend. Choir members, who normally have the summer off, sang "God Be in My Head" a cappella before Sunday's Mass to honor Stein. Some said they are reducing their contributions to the church, while others are considering leaving.
"It's been a very hurtful and awful time for the choir members because we all knew that Bill was gay," said choir member Greg McQueary. "It just wasn't an issue. We all loved this guy for what he did for the parish and the community." McQueary said the adult choir grew from about 30 members to more than 70 under Stein's leadership. Stein oversaw the installation of a new pipe organ and took the choir to Austria and Italy, where it performed for the pope.
After the choir's unscheduled performance Sunday, some parishioners wept, while others applauded. Just as many applauded after the Reverend Aaron Brodeski completed a homily on staying true to church teachings, including those that reject premarital sex and homosexuality. A few walked out during the sermon. Brodeski said Monday that the sermon was meant to honor St. Peter and St. Paul and "had nothing to do with Bill Stein."