As a town parade meandered through rural Vermont streets, then 7-year-old Damian Legacy wandered away to a church.
Years later, as a teenager, he joined his local church choir to coax his non-religious family to step foot into the parish. And after receiving his driver's license, the first place Legacy ventured to, rife with elation over his newfound teenage freedom, was his church.
“There was always a draw to the church, a subtle pull, a little invitation,” Legacy, a senior, said of his call to his faith. “Everybody has a happy place. Mine is an empty church. That is the most serene and blissfully content that I have ever felt.”
Now on the precipice of graduation, the openly gay student is an ordained priest within the North American Old Catholic Church, which encourages LGBT members to join its clergy. Legacy was ordained in October, and since then, has held personal morning masses and structured prayer sessions six times a day. He also hosts masses for other students in his City Hall room.
The co-founder of Dignity GW, a campus group for LGBT Catholics that he started in 2011, Legacy rallied for same-sex marriage outside the Supreme Court last week in his clerical collar. He said when he came out at the age of 15, his religious mentors embraced him before his parents did.
Raised in a home where religion was of little importance and discussions of God were few, Legacy’s first interactions with faith were through the Roman Catholic Church through his grandparents. Yet the tenets of Roman Catholicism, which ban same-sex relationships, were in conflict with his personal identity.
Legacy viewed his sexuality as intended by God, an initial deterrent from a heterosexual married life.
“At this point, I was at the mercy of the catechism. It was, ‘I am ‘intrinsically disordered’, this is my call to celibacy, this is my call to priestly celibacy, this is God making me the way that I am so I can be a good priest. If I’m not attracted to women, then I’m not going to be called to matrimony, I’m going to be called to Holy Orders,” Legacy said.
Open about his sexuality, Legacy pursued the priesthood within the denomination, completing the ordination processes at night after his classes. He also serves as a volunteer chaplain at local nursing homes and a Maryland fire department.
“People say, ‘You don’t have a parish.’ Well, I do. My parish is my firehouse, my parish is my firefighters, my parish is the nursing home I say mass at,” Legacy said. “A parish is not necessarily the four walls of a church. My flock is anyone seeking a relationship with God.”
Two lives, one choice
Senior Blake Bergen remembers a crucifix affixed to the edge of Legacy’s bed in Thurston Hall freshman year. It is now one religious ornament among many in his City Hall room, which contains a dresser-turned-altar, a tabernacle and numerous faith-related paintings – and his friend’s stringent devotion to his denomination.
Both frequented the Newman Center, Legacy out of piety, Bergen out of curiosity. Bergen, raised Jewish, identifies as agnostic, but pursued extensive study of Catholicism to understand his friend’s faith and present Christianity to Legacy as compatible with his homosexuality.
“He was really struggling with his sexuality at that point, really struggling with his faith. It was really difficult to watch,” Bergen said.
In their sophomore year, Legacy and Bergen spearheaded a Newman Center pilgrimage from Rome to Madrid in time for World Youth Day, an annual religious gathering aimed at uniting Catholic youth.
Bergen and Legacy said that the Newman Center's Father Greg Shaffer approved their coordination of the trip, but that when each pursued executive board positions in the LGBT organization Allied in Pride, Shaffer asked them to step down.
“The way it was worded to me was, I could choose a life in the church, or I could choose a life in the flesh,” Legacy said. “I went with that which isn’t forcing me to choose. [Father Shaffer] is making me choose between the church and my sexuality, but my sexuality isn’t making me choose between it and the church.”
Legacy and Bergen said Shaffer was aware of their sexuality since they began participating at the Newman Center their freshman year.
“The Church’s teachings are clear and known universally, and the Church cannot support groups or movements that run contrary to Church doctrine,” Shaffer said. [This] didn’t preclude them from attending World Youth Day with the Newman Center group; however, we later reached a mutual understanding that they wouldn’t participate with [us] based on practical considerations.”
The conversation, Legacy said, catalyzed a shift in his personal theological convictions – but also personal strife.
Legacy described his own personal “dark ages” as he doubted his faith and grappled with feeling “less than human.”
-He sought refuge in Dignity Washington, a community of LGBT Christians based in Dupont Circle. Later, after meeting a bishop of the North American Old Catholic Church at his volunteer fire department, Legacy pursued priesthood within the denomination.
The church, unaffiliated with Roman Catholicism, allows divorced members to take communion, priests and bishops to marry and women and gays to be ordained.
'Living a life for God'
Legacy rallied for marriage rights at the Supreme Court last week, adorned in full clerical garb at each protest.
Meditating on the teachings espoused by his first Catholic church, Legacy acknowledged his conception of Biblical policy versus practice on matters of marriage.
“Divorced people aren’t supposed to get remarried, but it doesn’t really matter. You don’t see the church holding rallies against divorced people,” Legacy said. “There’s certain things that they overlook.”
He said he has reconciled his sexuality with his faith. Acknowledging his priesthood as his personal vocation, he said he hoped the Catholic church would afford same-sex couples the support to fulfill their “vocation to matrimony” with their partners.
And when in doubt, Legacy returns to a homily that resounded through his church walls as a boy.
“‘God makes straight all of our paths. All of our paths will lead home,’” Legacy said. “Gay, straight, divorced but remarried, what’s it matter if you live your life for God?”
Margaret Kahn contributed to this report.