The history of DignityHouston begins with the history of DignityUSA, its parent organization. The history of DignityUSA can be found on their Web site . We’ll give a brief synopsis here to get you started.
A brief history of DignityUSA
Father Patrick X. Nidorf, O.S.A., the acknowledged founder of Dignity, started a ministry for gay and lesbian Catholics in early 1969 in San Diego. To avoid religious fanatics and homophobes, candidates for membership were carefully vetted and a membership fee was required. A bit later, the ministry moved from San Diego to Los Angeles because that’s where most of the members were.
In 1970, Father Nidorf appointed Bob Fourier as the first Chairman of Dignity, and Bob drew up a Constitution for Dignity with a Statement of Position and Purpose that stated, "We believe that homosexuality is a natural variation on the use of sex. It implies no sickness or immorality. Those with such sexual orientation have a natural right to use their power of sex in a way that is both responsible and fulfilling.... and should use it with a sense of pride."
In 1971, Los Angeles Co-Adjutor Archibishop Timothy Manning met with Father Nidorf and his Provincial to express his offense that Father Nidorf was working in his diocese without his permission and that the Dignity group’s principles are “untenable.” The Archbishop forbids Father Nidorf to have anything further to do with Dignity, and Father Nidorf accedes.
During the 70s, Dignity had a considerable impact on the Church spawning various priests councils advocating for improved ministry to gay and lesbian people. At one point, Dignity itself had 25 priests among its 198 members. During this time, Father John McNeill, author of The Church and the Homosexual, became involved in DignityUSA.
In December, 1986 (two weeks before Christmas), the first Dignity chapter is evicted from Church property based on the Letter to the Bishops on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons.
Summarizing a history as long and as tumultuous as that of DignityUSA in such a small space is extraordinarily difficult. Needless to say, we’re omitting a multitude of events, like those involving New Ways Ministry and Call to Action. Please take a moment to look at the more details history provided on DignityUSA’s Web site.
A brief history of DignityHouston
Much of the information in this section is taken from George Wetzel’s article Houston marks 25th anniversary published in the Dignity/USA Journal, Summer, 1999.
Dignity/Houston had its first meeting and officially became a chapter-in-formation of DignityUSA on June 6, 1974, Denny Powers was the first president, and Rev. Mark Barron, O.P. served as spiritual chaplain. Rev. Alvuin Greenburg, a diocesan priest, joined in November, 1999 and edited the organization’s first newsletter.
On Jun 27, 1999, DignityHouston celebrated its 25th anniversary Mass with Don Kuder as principal celebrant and Alcuin Greenburg, Frank Jones, Paul O’Connor and Bill Tarter concelebrating. At that time, Jim LeBlanc was president of the chapter.
Between those two events, DignityHouston moved to six different locations, in some cases due to its expulsion from Church property.
The history of DignityHouston mirrors, in many ways the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community and the Catholic Church over time.
In the 1980s, it had a, relatively, huge membership with 150 or more people attending its weekly Masses. That was during the AIDS epidemic’s height, when the LGBTQ+ community was at the height of organization, and people needed the kind of spiritual comfort that a Catholic LGBTQ+ organization provided.
The 1990s saw a substantial decrease in membership which paralleled the decrease in attendance that all churches saw during the same period.
Since the late 90s, DignityHouston has had a stable, dues-paying membership of around 19. Of course, the dues-paying members and the members who actually attend services have been a different population, as they have been since the founding of the organization.
Regrettably, as is the case with many small, voluntary nonprofit organizations, many of the historical documents have been lost over time. It is difficult to even reconstruct a full list of presidents. That is, of course, always a problem when dealing with paper documents and an organization run by volunteers. DignityHouston does have a History Project that is working to recover much of this documentation, and as it become available, you will find it on this Web site.
More detailed information on the history can be found in the newsletters and in the timeline above.