During a recent Sunday Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, the pastor focused his sermon on stories from scripture about hospitality and generosity.
Many attendees may have found the message ironic, considering that just weeks earlier, the parish’s music director was fired because of who he loves.
On Oct. 13, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes Queens, forced Matthew LaBanca out of his jobs as music director at the church and music teacher at St. Joseph Catholic Academy, the Astoria school where he had taught since 2015, because he married his longtime partner, Rowan Meyer.
LaBanca, 46, was in the front pew for the Mass, singing hymns emphatically alongside family members and others who wore rainbow masks symbolizing LBGTQ+ pride and support designed as a “peaceful statement” against his firing.
“People surprise you in wonderful ways. And that happened for me on Sunday,” LaBanca said. “There’s no mistake if you’re wearing that mask how you feel. And a vast majority of people were wearing rainbow masks.”
Outside the church on 61st Street, a police officer in uniform had approached him prior to the service and, LaBanca said, told him he was there to protect him. LaBanca and his supporters said they had not called the police and aren’t sure who did.
Parents of children LaBanca had taught and members of the choir were among those who voiced their support for his return.
“All he does is encourage us to be loving and forgiving and he wants to have some kind of mutual respect between the LGBT community and the Catholic church,” said Susan Grimes, a member of the church choir who is an active supporter of the community.
Regina Stavropoulos, who has two children at the school, made custom masks emblazoned with a rainbow heart and the website for LaBanca’s Change.org petition.
LaBanca’s parents, Felicia and Frank, traveled from their upstate home to be at the church.
“I think it’s an atrocity to do to someone in this day and age to someone who has given basically his whole life to the church,” said Felicia.
“We’re all God’s children and Jesus said love your neighbor. And this is not showing love.”
Why he is speaking out
LaBanca and Meyer, an actor, married Aug. 1. He was fired six weeks later.
“His contract has been terminated based on the expectations that all Catholic school and academy personnel, and ministers of the Church, comply with Church teachings, as they share in the responsibility of ministering the faith to students,” the diocese said.
LaBanca disputes being characterized as a minister of the church, as he had no formal religious training.
He said he refused a severance package, which included $20,000 and would have required him not to speak of the situation. Instead, he made a YouTube video explaining his position, which has been viewed more than 25,000 times and spoke with The New York Times. A documentarian is interested in producing a film about LaBanca.
Two weeks ago, LaBanca started a new job at a public elementary school in Queens, teaching music. He’s also writing a play called “Communion” about his firing.
He hopes the story of his termination can help create change in the church.
Appealing to a new bishop
LaBanca said he has collected over 20,000 signatures between two petitions to present to Bishop Robert Brennan, who was installed Nov. 30 to replace Nicholas DiMarzio, who presided over his firing. He hopes Brennan will reverse the decision.
LaBanca is also focusing on the current Catholic Synod, two years of papal-sponsored meetings across the world that open discussions within dioceses. If enough parishioners speak up, the church would have to become more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, he said.
“If each person took a different community within the diocese, or beyond, and shared our message, shared my video, I think it would be fresh on people’s mind,” LaBanca said. “We could move the needle on this issue.”