I Quit the Church Before It Quit Me
Just about 54 years ago, I was born in Astoria, Queens, on the Roman Catholic Feast of the Annunciation. Not long after, I was baptized into the Roman Catholic faith at St. Raphael’s, a little red brick church in Long Island City, that for decades has served as a landmark alongside the Long Island Expressway approach to Manhattan. My parents married there, and we held my grandfather’s funeral there.
I received my first communion not far away at St. Gregory the Great in Bellerose; I made my confirmation, volunteered as an altar server and worked part-time as a receptionist at St. Anne’s in Garden City, Long Island; my fiancée and I attended Pre-Cana in Clearwater, Fla., and were married at The Riverview in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y. — the priest stayed for the reception and caught the garter! We renewed our wedding vows at my home parish of St. Timothy’s in West Hartford, Conn., where I faithfully attended mass on Sundays and all the holy days, including after my gender transition.
So… being Catholic was pretty much who I was, right from the beginning.
But I am more than that. I am a parent first and foremost, a journalist, a transgender woman, and also the widow of a Jewish woman whom I called my beloved.
We were wed by a priest and a rabbi in a beautiful ceremony that brought tears to my eyes, and still does. It was 1996, almost 18 years before I came out. We decided even before we were engaged that if we were to be blessed with children, we would raise them Jewish — because they would be Jews, since their mother was Jewish.
A child born to a Catholic needs to be baptized to be Catholic, whereas every child born to a Jewish woman is Jewish by default.
“Will they believe in G-d?” my parents asked, when I told them I had proposed to my Jewish girlfriend. “Of course. It’s the same G-d,” I said. My father paused, looked at my mother, and smiled. “Then you have our blessing.”
NOTE: I prefer to follow the Jewish custom of not spelling out the name of G-d, hence the hyphens you will find throughout this essay,
The priest at our Pre-Cana conference told me I had to do everything in my power to raise my children as Catholic. And then he added, “But what power you may think you have, in the face of such a strong woman, is up for debate.”
My bride to be laughed, as did the priest. His only actual stipulation for us to earn our “certification” was that we had to maintain separate bedrooms for 3 months. It didn’t mean we couldn’t have sex; but after, we had to go back to our respective bedrooms. Lucky for us she had moved into my 3-bedroom apartment on Clearwater Bay. We were so in love that this small sacrifice was of no consequence.
Her love for me, unfortunately, had its limits, as I learned on the day in March 2013 I told her I could no longer deny that I am trans.
My local pastor is aware of my identity and told me to my face, as did his predecessor, that I am welcome, and not to ever feel ostracized or not accepted as a full member of this Catholic parish and community.
However, a little more than a year ago, I was attending Palm Sunday services, and participating in a reading from the gospel according to Matthew that had long troubled me, not just as the widow of a Jew, raising Jewish children. But just as a human being, this passage never sat well with me, whenever it was read.
Matthew 27: 24 When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but that instead a riot was breaking out, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “You shall bear the responsibility.” 25 All the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
A wave of disgust hit me, harder than ever before, so much so that I chose to ask the priest at the conclusion of mass, why we would still read such a clearly anti-semitic passage? I was offended, I told him, and asked him how he could defend a 2-thousand year-old text which could, in modern times, spur and perhaps even justify hate and violence against the Jewish people?
“Well,” the priest said, clearly caught off-guard, “I think you need to look at this in historical context.”
“But that still doesn’t make repeating that just and appropriate,” I countered.
“I agree that it’s… problematic,” he offered, but then dismissed me with, “All anyone can do is ask G-d for enlightenment and understanding. Pray,” he said.
Now, if that isn’t passing the buck to the invisible man in the sky, I don’t know what is. But yes, I prayed. And I also did my homework, recalling some of my catechism, re-reading Pope Paul VI’s message in Vatican II, denouncing anti-semitism, as well as the writing of Pope Emeritus Benedict. He declared the passage “means that we all stand in the need of the purifying power of love which is his blood. These words are not a curse, but rather redemption, salvation. Only when understood in terms of the theology of the Last Supper and the Cross, drawn from the whole of the New Testament, does this verse from Matthew’s Gospel take on its correct meaning.”
Yeah, fine. But how come no effort is made when that passage is read publicly to point this out? Don’t we owe it to our weaker-willed parishioners to remind them, this is not a free pass to hate Jews? That Sunday in April 2017, for the first time in my life, I actually questioned why I was a practicing Roman Catholic. The awareness of how deeply this bothered me gave me a shudder. Who am I if I am not Catholic?
As I mentioned, I’m a journalist, and in June, I interviewed Father James Martin, the Vatican’s liaison to the LGBTQ community, who wrote a book about bridging the gap between the church and lesbians, gays, bisexual, transgender and queer Catholics. Talking with him provided great inspiration and boosted my flagging faith. Father Martin is an amazing man, and I was comforted by his assurances that despite Vatican dogma and official proclamations, that people such as himself were working, behind the scenes, to try to end divisions between us.
But all you had to do was read the hateful comments on his Facebook page from conservative anti-LGBTQ Catholics to see what he was up against.
Then in December, several Roman Catholic archbishops and bishops joined other conservative Christian and Muslim leaders in releasing a letter, condemning transgender identity, I wrote to my archbishop here in Connecticut, to ask where he stood. I knew he, too, was conservative. But given my history with my welcoming parish in the 5 years since my transition, I’ve believed with all my heart that my church would never actually turn its back on me, even after the pope’s comparison of trans people to nuclear weapons. This is, after all, the pope who asked, “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gay priests, who became the first pope to meet several out transgender people, and declared Jesus himself would never abandon trans people.
A few weeks later, with still no response from the archbishop, my children fulfilled their annual obligation to attend Christmas mass with me, and I fulfilled my obligation to them. Following holy communion, we have our own tradition: we bolt for the exit, in what my oldest son christened “the Jew-Break.” Attending mass on Christmas and Easter was all I had ever asked of them and their mother, and they always obliged, especially given how often I accompanied them to services at our temple. The “Jew-Break” was a small price to pay.
After a month without an answer, I stopped expecting a response and figured I’d never get one. I know from working in the media that a lot of email and letters unfortunately just don’t get replies; it’s a fact of life, given how much mail comes in, compared to how many people there are to respond to them. As the weeks rolled by without an answer, as the Trump administration racked up more and more offenses against LGBTQ Americans, and my church remained silent in the face of growing oppression, I finally made up my mind.
Despite the years I spent living as a practicing Catholic, and the reassuring warm welcome from my local branch of the church, I could no longer tolerate and would no longer participate in its organizational oppression of people like me.
I made my decision known to my temple’s chief rabbi on January 20th, the two year yahrzeit of my wife’s death, following services that Shabbat with my children at our temple. This is where we held our oldest child’s bar mitzvah and confirmation, our daughter’s bat mitzvah, their brother’s brit, and their mother’s funeral. This is where my children perform in the annual Purim Shpiel. This is our Jewish home.
Since then, I have taken the first steps toward converting to the faith of my late wife and our children, Judaism. While also a member of St. Tim’s parish, I have been an active member of our Reform synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, since moving to Connecticut 14 years ago, but always in support of my family, not for myself alone. It’s the kind of progressive, LGBT-welcoming and interfaith-friendly temple that not only asked me to serve as chairwoman of the Adult Jewish Learning Committee, but also welcomes my input in other matters, such as organizing and setting-up the annual Purim Shpiel and carnival, and planning for the synagogue’s 175th anniversary this summer.
I’ve pondered this for some time. Am I merely quitting a religion? Or do I feel drawn toward another one? This question is not simple, but my answer is: Judaism has called to me for decades and I heard the call but would never allow myself to listen.
The cantor who offered me an Aliyah when my Jewish girlfriend asked me to join her at temple (I wanted to accept, but she let me know it’s not meant for gentiles); the cabbie who told us “what a nice Jewish couple we made;” the rabbi who rapped on my car window in Brooklyn and asked me for a ride “because I can tell you’re a good Jewish boy.”
Sorry, neither! But if I had a dollar for every person who told me, “I thought you were Jewish!” I’d be, like, in the song, a rich man.
I embarked on this journey in full knowledge that I have turned my back on my 12 years of private religious education and the faith of my parents, sister, cousins and even our family back in Ireland. But I did so with the full awareness that even before I made my decision to fulfill this destiny, that the church abandoned me first.
Any doubt I had about that was confirmed the very next day, when I received a letter in the mail from Archbishop Leonard Blair of the Archdiocese of Hartford.
“We are living at a time when attempts are made to redefine the G-d-given meaning of sexuality and marriage. People in difficult situations need to be treated with respect, understanding, and pastoral care, but that does not mean that we can accept a change in fundamental truths about the human person.”
Father Martin sent me a private message after I sought his counsel on this issue.
I wouldn’t let one person move you from the faith that Jesus himself called you into at baptism. What is Archbishop Blair next to Jesus?
Well, Father Martin, I must confess that Blair is nobody, just another dude who is trying to stand between me and G-d. I don’t consider him next to Jesus or even in the same category as Jesus… because I believe Jesus was a rabbi born 2,000 years ago who tried to reform Judaism, was reportedly killed for blasphemy, and whose Jewish followers eventually started their own religion. They based this new faith on decades-old memories of his sermons, parables and life lessons along with a smorgasbord of Jewish scriptures that they cherry-picked to support their new narrative.
I don’t deny any Christian their right to believe in Jesus or the Holy Trinity or anything they wish. But how can I deny I am attracted by a faith that predates theirs, and yet welcomes me officially and unconditionally?
Reform Judaism does not reject my gender identity or anyone else’s; in fact, the movement adopted a resolution affirming transgender identity in 2015.
On the eve of my eldest son’s bar mitzvah on St. Patrick’s Day 2012, I came out to our rabbi.
He told me that G-d made me in his or her own image, and that fit no matter how I identify. He also told me not to get a big head and think I’m the first one attending our synagogue to transition.
Because I’m not.
That calling I mentioned, I used to think when I was young that it might be to the priesthood, but the thought of not marrying and more importantly, having children, was impossible to conceive.
What I’m drawn to is the collective community, the traditions, the music and mysticism as well as the egalitarian practice of this faith. My friend Rabbi Stephen Fuchs told me that he met a little girl once who was stunned to learn that he was a rabbi. “I didn’t know,” she told him, “that boys could be rabbis, too!”
No objections to women serving, participating, leading. No policies dictating reproductive rights. No carrots offering free forgiveness of sins and a stick if you don’t confess. Judaism makes its followers work for that gift, and it is bestowed by those you hurt. It is a faith that puts the obligation to do good and do right by both G-d and man, above all others. I’m still learning.
From my experiences participating in seders at St. Anne’s School, befriending my Jewish neighbors in Brooklyn, dating Jewish women and attending services with their families on high holy days, loving and marrying one amazing Jewish woman and the almost 20 years of raising our Jewish children and taking part in their traditions, I feel at long last welcome as the woman I am, and not just so long as I only attend one house of worship.
How as a Catholic would I be welcomed if I left my little bubble? While I have not been officially excommunicated, that letter from Archbishop Blair would have hit me just as hard as if it did formally announce my separation from the church of the past 54 years.
It would have… had I not already decided on my new path.
The rabbi suggested I take this process slow, consider attending a more LGBTQ-friendly Christian church to see what I might be missing. To me, any other form of Christian worship has always seemed like a broken mirror reflection of the faith I grew up with, and uncomfortable for that reason. In contrast, despite my upbringing, I am far more comfortable with Reform Judaism. Even though this path means no U-turns.
People convert to Judaism and other religions, he told me, “But once you are a Jew, you are a Jew for life.”
My children were stunned and simultaneously delighted at the news. They had not seen this coming, despite their years of hearing me bemoan the failures of my church. In my mind, just as it took me years to slowly embrace my authentic gender of female, I had slowly evolved from being a practicing Catholic, to being someone who followed the Catholic faith, to now being an ex-Catholic who is studying Judaism in the interest of joining my children in worshipping as a Jew.
Converting is only one part of a self-improvement effort I have made in recent months. I’ve embarked on a journey to live healthier, address my own demons and faults, and I have lost a ton of weight. I am happy, although I’m dirt poor. I’ve also reached out to people who have turned their backs to me, and those I have offended, in hopes we can find our own bridge to a better relationship.
I have no ill will toward my friends and family who worship Jesus or practice Christianity. I don’t think they are wrong any more than I feel Jews are right. I only know what is right for me.
I think at some point, every woman and man must ask themselves: who am I? What do I believe? What am I doing to practice Tikkun Olam? It’s Hebrew for “Repair the World.”
That concept has long held my interest, even before I considered conversion.
This past Sunday, as my youngest son and I studied the volunteer opportunities available to him for his bar mitzvah next year, I considered what I can do to repair the world. Being out of work so many months now, we have fallen on hard times of late, and ironically three of the tables at Temple Emanuel were staffed by volunteers who provide food and other necessities to our family through Foodshare, Jewish Family Services, and local school backpack programs. Most of their efforts are not for families like mine but directed to help our neighbors who are marginalized by racial inequities and economic disenfranchisement. But I am grateful for the generosity of others that has also helped us, so very much.
I have long felt it is my place in this world of hurt to raise up the voices of those who have no voice, not to glorify my own. I remember that growing up Catholic meant to think my mission on this earth was to do what Jesus would do if met with poverty, hatred, oppression and violence.
Since losing the love of my life two years, one month and 21 days ago, my life from that point forward has been to teach my children what their mother would do. And now, by my example, what I will do, as a Jewish woman they call “Dad.”
She got her start in New York City working behind the scenes at CNN. Ennis wrote and produced for CBS, NBC, and ABC News, and has also worked as a manager at TV stations across the country.
Ennis was America’s first transgender journalist in a TV network newsroom when she came out almost 5 years ago, and started a new career as an online journalist and independent video producer.
She and her three children reside in Connecticut with their cat, Faith.