For Colin Collette and William Nifong, the Ponte Sant'Angelothe Bridge of the Holy Angelin Rome, seemed to be the perfect place to get engaged.
Collette, at the time, was Director of Worship at Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness, where he'd been for 17 years. Nifong is a teacher of Classics.
"At one end of the bridge, you've got Hadrian's Tomb, which means so much to Will," said Collette. "At the other end, you've got St. Peter's Basilica, which, as a Catholic, is important to me. It was this perfect intersection of our worlds, at this moment where our lives would be intersecting even more."
But their excitement over the engagement, which they announced on social media, was short-lived. The couple returned to Illinois and on July 27 Collette was asked by Father Terry Keehan for his resignation from Holy Family.
He and Nifong suspect some conservative congregants might have seen the posts and complained: "There were some groups who were more conservative, but nothing was ever said to my face," Collette said, noting that he had no complaints about his job performance and, on July 1, had received a merit-based pay increase.
Collette refused to tender his resignation. The following day, Keehan phoned Collette and asked once more. When Collette refused again, Keehan told him, "I'm relieving you of all your services, effective immediately," according to Collette.
Nifong described Holy Family as an "open place." He and Collette have been together for 5 years and he noted that, "For at least the last four [years], I have been a completely known entity around the church." He would sing in the choir on Christmas or when members were unavailable, for example, and did readings during services. Each year he did an extensive reading in Latin on Holy Thursday.
Collette added they socialized as a couple with numerous individuals in the congregation, including Keehan. "When members would get married, we would receive invitations addressed to 'Colin Collette and Will Nifong.'"
They only once had concerns about their being out as a couple, Nifong noted. When Collette's mother died a few years ago, he mentioned 'his partner, Will,' during the memorial mass, and was warned not to do so publicly again.
"As long as you don't make them uncomfortable and fly under their radar, everything's alright," Nifong said.
The Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement that said, "Those that serve as Ministers of the Church, including worship ministers, are expected to conform their lives publicly with the teachings of the Church."
So soon after the firing, Collette and Nifong are not yet sure of Collette's legal standing; Collette said that they'd spoken with a lawyer but he was not confident about having many recourses. Nifong pointed out that the Archdiocese has a notice on its website saying that it is an Equal Opportunity Employer, and noted Collette did not recall ever signing a document that included a morals clause.
"They were trying to set it up so that I did not have a [legal] leg to stand on and so that I can't collect unemployment insurance," Collette said.
But he added that he has been heartened by the tremendous outpouring of support from within the Holy Family community, and not just from the current membership: "I have gotten mail from places like California and Boston, from many former members."
"This is a man who played the organ when his feet could barely touch the pedals," added Nifong. "He is a man of great faith and spirit. I know I'm biased, but he was not only the musical heart of that church but it's energetic heart as wellin another time or place, he would have made a great priest or a spiritual leader."
Collette said he's going to miss his job: "That was my life. Aside from Will, that was the most important part of my life."
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