A History of Dignity Washington

The Early Years (1972-1979)

1972 – Sr Jeannine Gramick, Patrick Mills, Fr. Greg Slamone, Joe Cicero and one other person came together to start a Catholic ministry to lesbian and gay people. They started a chapter of Dignity in Washington in 1972, three years after the founding of DignityUSA. An estimated twelve people attended the first liturgy

1975 – 40 members regularly attending twice a month liturgy held at the Newman Center on the campus of George Washington University since inception in 1972.

1976 – Dignity Washington began sponsoring a weekly liturgy

Years of Growth and Challenge (1979-1987)

1979 – Dignity Washington incorporated and established chapter bylaws in 1979. Sunday mass attendance grew to almost 100 persons and later that year the worship took place at the larger St. William Chapel on the Georgetown University campus.

In October, Pope John Paul II came to Washington DC; he was greeted at St. Matthew’s Cathedral by thirty members with a Dignity Washington banner reading, “Dignity Gay and Lesbian Catholics Welcome you.” The same banner was present with the community at the Papal Mass on the Mall the next day.

Dignity Washington marched publicly as a group for the first time during the first national March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights.

Early 1980’s – Dignity started several other outreach activities in the early 1980s that were considerably less controversial. Members volunteered at St. Elizabeth Hospital, Lorton Reformatory, the Washington Home for the Blind, the Calvert Shelter. Under the leadership of Herman Chavez, the chapter sponsored two gay Cuban prisoners who came to the United States during the Mariel Boat Lift.

1982 – Dignity Washington celebrated its 10th Anniversary at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown. The potluck dinner which followed the liturgy was attended by approximately 400 members, family, and friends.

1983 – Chapter members conducted parish visitations, including the Red Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral – an outreach practice in which a small contingent of Dignity members attended local parish liturgies or functions to educate mainstream parishes about the role and mission of Dignity Washington. However, this effort was not welcomed.

1985 – The chapter started a feeding program for homeless women. On June 23, 1985, John Willig, chapter president during the mid ‘70s, became the first member to die of complications associated with AIDS.

The Move to St Margaret and Time in Exile (1987-2000)

1986 – In October, the Vatican issued a letter on human sexuality by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, shocked the Dignity community with his assertion that gays and lesbians are “objectively disordered.” The letter also insisted that gay organizations should not be allowed the use of Church property.

Subsequently, at the request of Archbishop James Hickey, Fr. Timothy Healy, Georgetown University President, informed Dignity Washington that the chapter could no longer use any of the campus chapels for worship.

1987 – Dignity secured a rental agreement for the use of St. Margaret Episcopal Church for its liturgies. On June 22, Dignity Washington held a march from St. William Chapel in Georgetown to St. Margaret Church in Dupont Circle.

As a result of increased public attention, Dignity’s membership and Sunday evening liturgy attendance grew and it became common for more than 500 people to participate in Sunday liturgies.

1990 – Dignity Washington had 350 members and was the largest Dignity chapter in the country, a distinction it maintains to this day.

1991 – A Dignity Washington forum produced a resolution on inclusivity, which was passed unanimously by the Board of Directors in August. That is when Dignity Washington’s visible efforts to provide a welcoming environment for all via the use of gender-neutral images of God, sign-interpreted weekly liturgies, Spanish language liturgies, and the presence of enthusiastic greeters at the church doors.

In August the 10th biennial DignityUSA convention brought more than 500 Dignity members from around the country. The convention raised approximately $20,000 for the national organization.

1992 – On Pentecost Sunday Dignity Washington began celebrating a second liturgy at 4:30 to accommodate the needs of its growing membership.

The chapter celebrated the 20th anniversary in September.

1993 – Approximately 80 Dignity Washington members and 300 Dignity members from around the country joined the Third National March on Washington. That evening 140 participated in the 4:30 liturgy and 550 crowded together to praise God at the 7:30 PM liturgy.

Mid 90’s – Mission Statement was revised to include bisexual and transgendered people and increase efforts to reach out to marginalized people. Dignity Washington clearly stated its role as a prophetic voice to the Catholic Church and voice of the Gospel to the gay and lesbian community.

1997 – Building Fund Campaign was launched and combined with loans to fund the purchase of the Dignity Center at 721 8th St. SE.

The New Millennium and Planning for the Future (2002-2011)

2002 – 30th Anniversary Celebration included and eloquent speech by Judith Light.

2003 – In September there was a Spiritual Retreat in Dewey, DE with 20 participants.

2004 – Dignity Washington hosted the DignityUSA East Coast Regional Conference in June.

2005 – In November Dignity Washington took out a full-page advertisement in the National Catholic Reporter entitled, “Petition from a People in Exile” challenging our status within the Church and its continuing lack of acceptance for LGBT individuals.  Dignity’s local and national membership numbers declined.

2006 – The community made the “No Place Like Home” effort a great success raising over $180,000 in under three years and meeting all its needs: pay off the mortgage for the Center; repair the building’s roof and foundation, replace the air conditioning system; and establish a reserve fund for the future care of the building or other emergency needs.

2010 – During the summer trip of Pope Benedict XVI, Dignity Washington members chose a site on the hill of Rock Creek Park to display our banner away from the crowds of downtown when the Popemobile went by. Dignity Washington and DUSA were present at the Papal Mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Ceremonial burning of the mortgage papers at the Anniversary Dinner. Remaining funds became the “Always Our Home Fund” which has paid for repair of the board room windows (with the assistance of a grant from the District of Columbia) and recently paid for a new kitchen.

More enthusiasm for social activities inspired “Tables for Six”, Grupo Latino to have periodic Spanish Masses and celebrate some feast days with the larger community, the traditional St. Joseph’s/St. Patrick’s Dinner, Moon over Washington, Night Out at the Nats, Anniversary Dinner, and Halloween and Christmas parties.

2011 – In February, the board and president participated in a retreat to formulate a strategy for the future growth and diversity of membership. The outgrowth of this was a series of community planning sessions and a strategic plan prepared by Hill Top Associates (a group of Georgetown University MBA students). The resulting plan helped the community focus on involving new members more quickly than in the past and increasing our use of social media.

Dignity Washington hosted National Convention in Washington DC for more than 300 members of the broader DignityUSA community. Four long term Dignity couples from around the country were married by DIGNITY WASHINGTON presiders under provision of the new DC marriage equality laws.

Moon over Washington and the summer trip to Rehoboth, DE, were revived.

Advent – the community adopted the new liturgical translation.

Increased the involvement of local university students and younger members resulting in the revival of the Young Adults Group (aka Holy Spirits). The membership for the first time in many years increased.

On the Move (2012 – 2022)

2012 – New kitchen installed at the Dignity Center.

2013 – The election of Pope Francis brought optimism and hope to LGBT people along with some media attention to the Dignity Community. Dignity Washington was a voice, small, but we were a source of light.

An active group of young adults attended Mass and our events. They wanted to see some changes, and this resulted in a new logo, event banners, and an updated Sunday bulletin. All were eye catching and helped to expand and increase our presence in the community.

DignityUSA’s Conference in Minneapolis, MN, inspired Dignity Washington begin a 3 ½ year discernment process upgrading our presider credentialing policy to include males or females who had the proper qualifications to preside at our Dignity masses.

2016 – The first of two female presiders were credentialed.

2019 – Dignity Center near Eastern Market was sold for $1.53M and a new Center was purchased near Dupont Circle for $875 K plus additional funds spent on renovations.

Increased Social Media presence to expand our outreach for young people.

December 2019 – COVID-19 Pandemic caused one Sunday Mass to be missed and an online version was substituted until health conditions allowed the community to resume our regular Sunday Mass

March 2020 – Dignity Mass is streamed on Facebook and YouTube. Additionally, there were weekly socials, Rosaries recited online for members and the book club continued via Zoom.

June 2021 – Dignity resumes in-person Masses at St Margaret’s, bringing our community back together after a long hiatus.

NOTE: This history was composed by many members of Dignity Washington and various documents in the Dignity Washington Archives and public record. There were many individuals mentioned and not mentioned who have contributed to make Dignity Washington the generous warm organization it is and hopes to be. Alleluia Alleluia.