A music director at a Detroit-area Roman Catholic parish has been fired because she’s married to a woman, even though their pastor had known of their marriage for five years.
Terry Gonda, part-time music director at St. John Fisher Chapel in Auburn Hills, received an email June 12 informing her she would be terminated, then was officially dismissed Wednesday by the Archdiocese of Detroit, The New York Times reports.
Gonda, 59, had worked at the church for 30 years. She became involved with the liberal parish, located at Oakland University, after a breakup led her to consider suicide, according to the Detroit Free Press. She has said the church saved her life.
She said no one at the chapel had a problem with her being a lesbian, even though the Catholic Church officially considers homosexuality a sin and expects faithful Catholics to refrain from same-sex relationships. She had been open about her relationship with Kirsti Reeve, whom she met in 1994. They had one marriage ceremony in 2003, before same-sex marriages were legally recognized anywhere in the U.S., then had another wedding in 2011 in Washington, D.C., which had approved marriage equality by then. Reeve, whose previous religious identities include atheist and evangelical Christian, is a convert to Catholicism and attends the church with Gonda.
Monsignor Michael LeFevre, pastor of St. John Fisher, had been aware of the women’s marriage for five years and had been supportive of them. But archdiocesan officials recently learned of the union, and they had a problem with it.
“I received a call from ... the Human Resource director for the Archdiocese in response to a communication the diocese received regarding your marital status,” LeFevre wrote in the June 12 email, which Gonda shared with the Times and the Free Press. “When asked, I confirmed that you and Kirsti had informed me of your marital status some five years ago. Now, the archdiocese is choosing to activate its morality clause to terminate your employment.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled that anti-LGBTQ+ job discrimination is illegal, but religious institutions and their ministerial employees are generally exempt from antidiscrimination laws because of the constitutional separation of church and state. As a music director, Gonda was considered a ministerial employee. Such definitions have been disputed, however, and the high court recently heard a case involving whether teachers at religious schools are covered by antidiscrimination laws.
Gonda said no one from the archdiocese came to Wednesday’s meeting at St. John Fisher; instead, an archdiocesan official phoned in to fire her. The archdiocese declined comment to the media, saying personnel matters are confidential.
Several members of the parish denounced the archdiocese’s action. “It’s just an unbelievable thing that’s happening. Terry is one of the nicest people you’d ever want to know and Kirsti is just delightful,” Alyce Gilroy, a 40-year member of St. John Fisher, told the Times. “I am currently looking to find a new church that aligns with my values. At age 97, that is pretty sad.”
Another longtime member, Sheran Tioran, told the Free Press she is “saddened” and “angry.” “Jesus would not be turning Terry and Kirsti away,” she said. “He’d be welcoming them with open arms. It’s just ridiculous.”
Despite the acceptance the couple received at St. John Fisher, the Detroit archdiocese has enforced official Catholic doctrine about LGBTQ+ identity and relationships. In March, it issued an order forbidding the Detroit chapter of DignityUSA, an LGBTQ+-affirming Catholic ministry, to hold services in any space under the archdiocese’s control. It also said priests within the archdiocese could not serve the group.
In 2017, Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron wrote that Catholics should pray for “those with same-sex attraction who do not see the truth and goodness of Christ’s call to them, that they might undergo repentance and conversion to receive healing and peace.” Vigneron is vice president of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and is next in line to head the organization, the Times notes.
Gonda, who has a full-time job as a research engineer for the U.S. Army, said she still loves her faith. “I’m a Catholic and a lesbian, an engineer and an artist, and a pacifist who works for the Army,” she told the Times. “I live in the middle of a paradox, so I’ve always got one foot out the door, period.”
She said she’s reluctant to file a lawsuit, although she hasn’t ruled that out. “I’m uncomfortable with having laws determine these decisions,” she told the Times. “I think the church needs to do this.”
Meanwhile, she plans to lead the St. John Fisher choir this weekend — as a volunteer — and said she is at peace. “I’m going to be fine,” she told the Free Press. “I’ve got God. I’m filled with joy and love.”