Black and LGBTQ+ activists in Worcester said they were shocked and disappointed by Bishop Robert J. McManus’s decision to revoke the Nativity School of Worcester’s Catholic status because the school flew the Black Lives Matter and gay pride flags.
“How can a religious organization say these things in this day and time? It’s so outdated and shows no compassion, and it’s just disrespectful,” said Parlee Jones, the mother of a Nativity graduate and head of several Black-centered Worcester organizations. “I knew Nativity would do the right thing, but it’s just sad that somebody in that seat of power would say these things out loud in this community.”
On Thursday, McManus declared that the school could no longer call itself Catholic because it continued to display the flags despite his request that they be taken down. The decision came in the midst of Pride Month and days before Juneteenth, a holiday that commemorates the emancipation of enslaved Black people.
McManus imposed three additional restrictions: Nativity can’t sponsor Mass or sacraments, it can’t fund-raise via Worcester’s diocese, and Bishop Emeritus Daniel P. Reilly will be removed from the school’s board of trustees. Nativity’s administration has said they will try to appeal the decision “through the appropriate channels provided by the Church.”
The school, which primarily serves Black and brown children from disadvantaged backgrounds, put up the flags in January 2021 to “express support for making our communities more just and inclusive,” Thomas McKenney, Nativity’s president, said in a statement Wednesday.
McManus voiced concerns with the flags this April, when he released a statement that gay pride flags went against “consistent Catholic teaching that sacramental marriage is between a man and a woman.” The Black Lives Matter flag, he also said, had been co-opted by “factions which also instill broad-brush distrust of police.” He changed his argument on that flag in May, attributing his opposition instead to the movement’s “queer affirming” and “trans affirming” elements.
Many community members have expressed support for Nativity administrators standing their ground, saying their decision to keep the flags up shouldn’t have resulted in backlash.
Several also said they worried that the stance taken by a prominent religious figure could be harmful to youth.
“One of the things that you struggle with when you’re openly gay and Catholic is whether or not there’s a place for you in the church,” said Guillermo Creamer Jr., a 2008 Nativity alumnus who now serves as chair of the Worcester Human Rights Commission.
Creamer said he had been surprised by McManus’s move, which came after a letter in May from Pope Francis to LGBTQ Catholics in which the pope said God “does not disown any of his children.”
“With recent stuff that the Pope has shared, it has felt somewhat welcoming and refreshing to hear that LGBTQ Catholics have a place. Hearing this most recent stuff with the Bishop … opens so many questions about, you know, why now?” said Creamer, who is gay.
Deborah Hall, the first Black woman to run the Central Massachusetts YWCA, said she was surprised by the bishop’s opposition to the Black Lives Matter flag.
“We know folks in the Catholic Church who have been partners with us on issues of social justice and racial equity and the foundation of love, so this is bewildering, to say the least. But it sends a message, and it’s not the right message,” Hall said, adding that the decision “causes divisiveness.”
“It’s a way for people to continue to misunderstand in the name of religion, and there was no dialogue around it. I don’t think we get anywhere without continuing to talk, so I would invite the bishop to engage in conversations with the community,” she added.
However, one conservative Catholic group, the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts, commended the bishop’s decision.
“I don’t think Bishop McManus had any choice in this matter,” C.J. Doyle, the organization’s executive director, said. “Homosexual pride flags symbolize the explicit rejection of Catholic moral teachings … and every community has the right to define its own boundaries. I think the bishop would have been derelict in his responsibilities had he failed to do anything about it.”
Doyle said he supported the bishop’s suggestion for the school to instead display flags with messages like “End Racism” and “We Are All God’s Children.”
The change comes amid legislation in other states that targets discussing racial and LGBTQ+ identities in schools, including a new Florida law that bans primary schools from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity. At the same time, it follows a historic election in which Worcester elected Massachusetts’ first nonbinary city council member, Thu Nguyen, in 2021.
Some said they believed McManus’s decision, coupled with national trends, presents additional obstacles for children who already face heightened marginalization. LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to be bullied and face homelessness than straight youth, according to the CDC. The Trevor Project has also found that transgender children are particularly at risk for suicide.
Joshua Croke, founder of nonprofit Love Your Labels, which assists queer youth in Worcester, spoke about their own experience facing bullying in schools in Central Massachusetts. Croke said that they’re fearful of what McManus’s messaging might do.
“Despite having some folks of authority at Nativity who are taking a supportive and affirming stance,” they said, “these kids are still seeing this messaging that says there are people in our community that feel like you should not have the right to exist or express yourself and your identity in a way that makes you feel most whole and authentic — and that’s really harmful.”
“I think, unfortunately, the safety that is perceived by some, especially in a state like Massachusetts, is really not there,” Croke said.