Gaudete: celebrating welcoming parishes, schools, communities, and people

St. Agnes Catholic Church

San Francisco, Calif.

Andrea Wise / July 4, 2022

St. Agnes Catholic Church is a diverse Catholic community located in the middle of the historic Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco. The Jesuits founded the church in 1893 and the Ignatian emphasis on justice is an integral part of our ministry and practice. The church’s mission statement states: “We the people of Saint Agnes are an inclusive, urban community, rich in diversity of age, ethnicity, orientation, culture, talent and treasure; a faith community, enlivened and empowered through Baptism to celebrate and proclaim the presence of Christ among us.”

St. Agnes has been home to LGBTQ+ ministry since the early 1990’s. We pride ourselves on being a welcoming and active community of support for LGBTQ+ people. Through faith sharing and social and educational events, the LGBTQ+ ministry at St. Agnes aims to bring people together to learn and grow.  Whether one is currently practicing or exploring faith, and whether one is an ally or a member of the LGBTQ+ community, the LGBTQ Ministry at St. Agnes welcomes all. 

On our website, interested community members can complete a form to receive newsletters about LGBTQ ministry events, volunteer with the ministry and speak with an LGBTQ-identifying parishioner about their experience.

My own story and St. Agnes

I was 19 years old and scheduled to meet the youth group leader of a Christian group. I liked attending the group; the music was beautiful and the leader was charismatic and funny. He always told us, “I’m here for you! I want to connect with you and support you.”

I was nervous for the conversation but I was always a little nervous at that time. I had recently developed feelings for a female friend of mine, and I didn’t have many people to talk to about it. Though I do not remember any explicit teachings in my Catholic school growing up that stated it was wrong to be gay, I had absorbed enough implicit information to know it was not welcome.

As I sat with the youth group leader, I told him I had feelings for a woman. He looked at me and said, “That’s okay. You can ask God for forgiveness, and now you know not to do that again.”

I fear this experience is one many queer Catholics have had and carry with them. Whether through direct comments, harmful policies or outdated stances, we know that we are not always welcome within the church. We know we do not have the same rights in the church. We know there are record numbers of anti-transgender and anti-LGBTQ+ bills pending before lawmakers right now in the United States. 

And yet we know there are many of us who are not just attending our churches but singing, decorating, reading, altar serving or serving in leadership roles. 

For many of us queer Catholics, it is confusing and frustrating. The church appears slow to change. It can be uncomfortable to want to practice the faith while acknowledging the missteps of the church.

Shortly after college, when I was attending St. Agnes for Mass, I opened the bulletin and saw that the church had an LGBTQ ministry. I was shocked but I also felt welcome: seen and valued for who I was. I attended events held by a longstanding community of LGBTQ+ people, and was grateful to see that I was part of a legacy of people within our communities living, advocating and thriving.

Jesuit Father Dónal Godfrey with Andrea Wise (right) and guest at a 2021 Pride event of St. Agnes Catholic Church in San Francisco, Calif. (Photo courtesy of St. Agnes Catholic Church)

Now, years later, I lead the LGBTQ ministry at St. Agnes and have the joy of meeting new people who are seeking what I was seeking. I receive emails from younger queer Catholics in and outside San Francisco (even in other states and countries) who have found our webpage. They often say things like, “Is my partner welcome?” or “I didn’t realize there was such a thing!”

We respond to them with a big welcome, offer to connect them with other LGBTQ community members and invite them to events that bring people together. We send out community emails that share opportunities to connect, including events with speakers like Sister Jeannine Gramick, S.L., and Father James Martin, S.J. We celebrate Pride and even have a Pride flag flying in the church.

Recently, I’ve been inspired by the wave of folks seeking a welcoming community at this time.  As we navigated the complexity of the pandemic and the heaviness of our current world, I find people are searching for a space of loving welcome and hope.

Take Liz, for example:

When I was a teen, I had come out to my family and friends and I was finally able to live my truth, but I still had that lingering feeling of something missing deep inside. As I got older, I realized I never spoke out loud about what my religious beliefs were. I didn’t feel like I had anyone close to me or like me that could guide me through that journey. 

I really wanted to develop a more spiritual connection to my experiences in life and bring God to the forefront. I did struggle with the idea of fully entering the Catholic Church because of their public stance on the LGBTQ community. However, my desire to know God and learn about the faith was still weighing on my heart.

Thanks to a Google search, I stumbled upon New Ways Ministry. I truly believe this was God calling me to walk with him. I searched for a Catholic parish with an LGBTQ ministry in my area and I was immediately drawn to St. Agnes. 

It was such perfect timing that I found St. Agnes. I had every intention to take my journey slowly into the faith, but the RCIA sessions were just about to start. I knew I had to jump at the opportunity.

We just welcomed Liz into our community in April!

The impact of creating a welcoming space for the LGBTQ community in our church is immeasurable. Indeed, our true community-building comes from our monthly LGBTQ faith-sharing gatherings and our social hour after Mass. It’s the simple things that bring us hope and joy: Seeing each other, sharing our faith journeys and our journeys as queer people, praying, eating, laughing, singing and celebrating each other together.

Andrea Wise

Andrea Wise is associate director of the Public Service Center at the University of California, Berkeley. A graduate of the University of San Francisco, she volunteers as the LGBTQ ministry coordinator at St. Agnes Catholic Church.

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