The Rev. James St. George is a bit of an anomaly: He’s an openly gay priest with a partner of 14 years. Father James was ordained as a deacon in October 2006 at St. Mary Magdalen in Fairless Hills, and as a priest in May 2007 in Washington, D.C. He was appointed pastor of St. Miriam Church, 475 Norristown Road, Blue Bell, in March 2008.
PGN: Tell me about growing up. JSG: I was born and raised in Erie, Pa. My sister, Andrea, and I are both adopted. I often tell people that I learned the foundation for being a priest not at seminary, but at my mother’s table. It was a very strict Catholic Italian upbringing but it was compassionate and loving. Growing up, we used to come home and there was always a stranger at the table, sometimes a few, and we learned not to ask about them, we just accepted it. My mother would go shopping and see someone who was down and out or homeless and she would bring them home and feed them. So our table became not only a place where we worked everything out amongst our family, but an extension of who we were. Because from the time we were able to understand, we knew we were adopted. My mother also raised eight foster children, so it was never a big issue for us. My parents are still alive: My dad had a stroke while I was in seminary, so he’s pretty much paralyzed and in a nursing home, and my mom still lives in the house that we grew up in. My sister lives about 15 minutes from her and has two boys, Matthew and Stephen.
PGN: And what did your mother do? JSG: My mother, Ruth, had a variety of jobs, from nurse to hairdresser; I guess they called them beauticians back then. I think I was introduced to someone from the LGBT community for the first time when she went to beauty school. I was too young to know about my own sexuality, but she brought home a person whose name was Terry. Terry was having an operation to transition from male to female and his parents disowned him when they found out. He needed someplace to go after surgery to heal and someone to look after him, so my mother invited him to stay with us. I don’t know how old we were, probably about 7 and 8 or so. It was hard enough trying to explain the birds and the bees at that age, let alone this discussion, but she did her best to make us understand. We didn’t quite get it, but we knew that it was something that was OK with her.
PGN: Wow, very progressive of her! JSG: Yes, she was very big on social justice and human rights. Growing up in a very strong Roman-Catholic Italian family and neighborhood (it was like Little Italy), everything centered around the church. So for her to break away from a lot of the teachings of the church that excluded whole classes of people was pretty big. She always stuck to what she believed was right. She never excluded people. And she could curse like a sailor!
PGN: What traits have you learned from her? JSG: She’s very up-front. When she’s mad at you, you know it. My parishioners get a little glimpse of my childhood because I don’t like triangulation. And I refuse to put up with it at church, so if someone comes up to me and says, “I’m really mad at Suzi,” I say, “Then go talk to Suzi. If you can’t work it out, I’ll mediate with both of you, but I won’t stand for any behind-the-back gossip or griping.” To be in an environment that hides anger and hides behind innuendo does not work well for me. When my mother was mad, she would tell you why and you worked it out, and I try to do the same. The other area where my mother comes up is when it snows. I grew up in an area that gets 200-300 inches of snow each year. My mother used to look out the window and if she could still see the top of the antennae on the car, we’d have to go to school. So when people see a few flakes on the ground and call to see if we’re having service, I tell them there’s no such thing as a snow day at St. Miriam.
PGN: And what did your father do? JSG: He was a funeral director. He and his brothers owned a small chain of funeral homes. It’s funny because they all wanted to do something else. None of them wanted to be funeral directors. The lineage is that we are fourth- and fifth-generation funeral directors. I went to seminary and left because I didn’t believe in a lot of teachings of the church. So I became a funeral director, carrying on the tradition of men in my family who didn’t want to do what we were doing. My dad wanted to be a bookie, but there wasn’t really a school to learn how to be a bookie, and my uncles wanted to be a dentist and a lawyer, respectively, but ended up in the funeral business. I finally broke the cycle by going back and becoming a priest.
PGN: What kinds of things did you do as a kid? JSG: Everything centered around the home or the church back then. My mother loved bingo, so she would haul us off to play bingo. We were also lucky enough to live near Waldameer Amusement Park and the Presque Isle State Park beaches. There was also a wooded lot behind our house, which we believed was a vast forest that we used to explore and play in. I went back recently and they had cleared it to make room to build a house. It was astonishing to see that it was only about half an acre. We used to think we were such big explorers: Looking at how small it was, I thought to myself, boy, we were kind of sissies! And believe it or not, my friends tease me because while all the other boys used to play cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers, I used to play priest. I used to sit in the backyard with Ritz crackers and grape juice and make Holy Communion for the dogs! My mother, being a staunch Catholic, had a fit and took me to see the monsignor. He said he would take care of it and I thought I was toast: I mean, if there really is a God in this world, the monsignor sits right at his doorstep. But he took me to the sacristy and wrapped up real hosts, obviously non-consecrated, and told me that you couldn’t make Holy Communion with Ritz crackers, but that I could have these. It instilled in me the value of being a compassionate priest.
PGN: So how did you get from funeral director to priest? JSG: Well, our funeral home got bought out by a larger company and, after working for them and then my own business for a while and not being happy, a friend of mine along with my partner, Sean, suggested that I take a minute and figure out what I really wanted to do before starting a new job. I decided I wanted to be a priest, but being openly gay I figured it wasn’t going to happen. By then we had broken away from the Roman Church and sojourned through the Episcopal Church for a while. I started my priesthood there, but they say once a Catholic, always a Catholic, and I felt there had to be a way to hold everything that I loved about being Catholic and the 2,000-plus years of tradition and yet make it more relevant and more compassionate and open. I found it in the Old Catholic Apostolic Church. I often say that the Roman Catholic Church is so bent on rules that they’ve forgotten about the grace and the love of God. PGN: So as a funeral director, what’s a crazy situation you had to deal with? JSG: The first that comes to mind is a situation where the guy that died had a wife, a mistress and a second wife who didn’t know about each other until he died. The wife had an inkling that he had a mistress but it wasn’t verified until she was at my funeral home making arrangements and the other woman showed up. It was a huge catfight, and I had to schedule different times for them to come in. Then along came another woman claiming she was his wife! She tried to prevent the burial all together. It was like something out of a movie. The other instance that comes to mind is two brothers who got into a fight over the casket. They both wanted to pick a different color and they started punching each other right there on the showroom floor. I was just shaking my head and thinking, this is plain crazy!
PGN: That first incident sounds like an episode of “Big Love.” How about something that moved you when you were a hospital chaplain? JSG: Yeah, I thought that was what I was going to do for life. Not only do you have to get a master’s degree and get ordained for that, but you then have to take an additional two years post-graduate work as well as working in a major medical center. It’s pretty intense. I still do a shift once a week at Lehigh. The event that comes to mind is the one that actually prompted me to go into parish ministry. There was a woman who was very sick and asked to see a priest. I went up to see her and she was in what we call end-stage lymphoma cancer and you could tell she was going to die. She had a little bonnet on her head and was very frail. I sat with her and it was almost a mini confession. She talked about her regrets and her joys and failures, and one common theme was her husband. She said that they had never been able to attend church together because she was Roman Catholic and he was Baptist. When they got married, the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t recognize their marriage and having married someone outside of the faith, she wasn’t allowed to receive communion anymore. She tried going to another church, but it never felt the same for her, so for 30 years, she would go to different Catholic churches where they didn’t know her to get communion and he would go to church on his own, but they’d never been able to worship together. So I offered to give them communion together right there and then. Her husband came to the room and I celebrated a full Mass for them and gave them both communion. She was overwhelmed, it was the first time they’d ever been able to celebrate communion together. She died shortly after that and, about a week later, her husband sent me the most moving letter, saying that it was the greatest gift that they’d ever received as a married couple and that if I ever decided to start a church, I would attract all kinds of followers because people needed to know that God wasn’t about rules and regulations, He was about love. Shortly after that, I met Rabbi Linda Holtzman from Mishkan Shalom Synagogue and she was looking for someone to rent some space in their building. We thought it was a neat idea to have a Christian and a Jewish group share a space together, and that’s where we started St. Miriam. It all came about because of that one occasion that I had with that couple.
PGN: Something interesting in your biography: I notice that you attended Howard University, which is a historically black college. JSG: I did. There were about 12 colleges to choose from and I asked the bishop if I could go to Howard and he said, “Why?” I just figured that I was living in D.C., where the majority of the population was African American. There’s a lot of gentrification going on and what happens is that mostly white people come in, buy homes, raise rents and push out the poor and indigent people who have lived there for years. A lot of times it was gay people, the DINKS — double income, no kids — who moved into areas that no one else would move into and fixed them up, raising the market value and pushing out the old residents. I also noticed that we had these beautiful white shining buildings, the Capitol building and the White House, strong and gleaming, and then in their shadows were areas like Anacostia, where people lived in some of the poorest conditions in the world. I thought to myself, this is just silly, I need to learn more about what it means to be African American in this country, to learn about the injustices African Americans are facing. So I asked to be sent to Howard, a predominantly black college, to get my master’s in divinity. It was interesting because, not only was I the only white person in my classes, I was also openly gay, and I got more flack for that than anything else. I got verbally beat up quite a bit over Leviticus from the Old Testament and Romans from the New, and one day it was too much and I started crying in class. Everyone felt bad and the professor asked me why I was crying, and I explained that after a full semester of listening everyday to how horrible I was, and how broken and what an abomination I was, it was difficult for me because I saw myself as a creation of God in his image and likeness, but that based on some words in a book, the whole class acted like I should be taken out and shot. I said, “You’ve come to know me over the past year; how can you hate like that? Aren’t you all from backgrounds where you were oppressed and hated? How can you justify now being the oppressor? Shouldn’t you be more compassionate to others?” I think it was the first time they put a face to the words and realized that I wasn’t just a faceless abomination: I was a real person that they knew and we really started to grow together. Over the rest of my time there, they learned about me and Catholicism and I learned about them and even won a preaching award!
PGN: I notice that St. Miriam’s is not an LGBT church like one of the Metropolitan Community Churches. JSG: We want to be open to everyone. When you come in to the church, right there on the bulletin board is a statement that basically reads, “If you are gay or lesbian, transgender, divorced, non-Catholic ... etc, you are welcome here.” There’s a whole list; pretty much anyone who would be rejected by the traditional Roman Catholic Church.
PGN: I didn’t realize how many people are marginalized by the church. Who else is not included? JSG: Oh, people who are divorced, ex-offenders, homeless people, people with mental illnesses, LGBT people. My issue is that nowadays, there are a lot of churches that say that they’re inclusive — it’s the new buzzword — but in actuality, their “inclusive” has strings. There’s a phrase that I hate: Love the sinner, hate the sin. That just ... it makes me so ... oh, don’t get me started. I could preach for an hour on that. Or they will say it’s OK that you’re gay until you introduce a partner; then suddenly, that means that you are an active gay and they’re not ready to deal with that. Ex-offenders are a big issue: The attitude is yes, we want to welcome people out of prison, but we’d prefer if they go someplace else. Mental illness and homelessness are two other issues that are given nothing but lip service. I was at a church once that had the nerve to have a sign outside saying that they were an inclusive church, but when a homeless man wandered in and sat in the back, the ushers were instructed to remove him. I left that church because of it. I went to the pastor and said, “You know, when we die and go to heaven, we’re going to find out that that was Jesus wanting to come in and you threw him out.” [Laughs.] I use that for everything. My partner Sean is a social worker and is very much a social-justice person, but when he sees me giving coins to panhandlers on the street, he tells me that I shouldn’t because they will probably use it for drugs or alcohol. And my response is always, “Yeah? And they might be Jesus!”
PGN: You want to make sure you pass the test! JSG: Yeah, you don’t want him saying, “Remember that nickel you wouldn’t part with ... ?” But seriously, it’s amazing how narrow churches can be. They’ll say they’re inclusive and you go there and everyone looks like everyone else. People don’t realize that the most segregated day of the week is Sunday, when people go to their houses of worship separated by color and denomination and a host of other factors. How inclusive can you be if you don’t go outside your little world? My job as a priest is to effectuate the sacrament; I don’t pick and choose who can and can’t have it. My argument to anyone who says otherwise is, Show me in the Bible where Jesus rejected anybody. If he didn’t turn his back on anyone, I can’t either.