NEW YORK — Pope Francis formally signed off on allowing Catholic priests to bless same-sex couples in December 2023.

But decades before the pope’s historic announcement, a New York City church has embraced the LGBTQ+ community and provided a safe space for worship.

The Church of St. Francis Xavier, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, provided services for AIDS patients while others refused, including being one of the first to bury a person who died of the virus during the epidemic of the 1980s. More recently, the church became the new home for a decadeslong memorial for people who died from AIDS-related complications when the original host parish was closed as part of the Archdiocese of New York’s reorganization plans.

PHOTO: Roe Sauerzopf and Paula Acuti celebrate 25 years together with a marriage ceremony at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in 2004.

Roe Sauerzopf and Paula Acuti celebrate 25 years together with a marriage ceremony at the Church of St. Francis Xavier in 2004.

Courtesy of Roe Sauerzopf

“We came and we never left,” Roe Sauerzopf told ABC News Live, recalling the first time she and her wife, Paula Acuti, had attended Sunday Mass at St. Francis, and how they immediately felt “safe” to be themselves.

“It’s been a struggle to be a lesbian, and to be a Catholic lesbian has been even more of a struggle,” Acuti, a New York resident, shared with a room full of women who attend a Catholic Lesbian group at the church and can relate to her experience, all nodding in agreement, while eating cheese and crackers and sipping wine on a Friday night.

“I had left the Catholic Church because of the attitude toward gay people,” Sauerzopf added.

“It was on Pride Sunday and the priest said that everybody there should pray for all the sinners who were marching in the city. And I think that’s the last time that we went into a church for a long time,” Acuti told ABC News Live.

It was at least 15 years before the couple found their way back to the Catholic Church. When attending a friend’s wedding in the early 2000s, they shared with a straight couple that they had felt unaccepted to be themselves within their religion.

“We were complaining to them about how there really is no accepting Catholic churches and they were like ‘oh no, there is one,’” Acuti said.

That’s when Acuti and Sauerzopf found St. Francis Xavier.

PHOTO: Roe Sauerzopf, left, and Paula Acuti, right, have been together for 45 years. They have been members of Catholic Lesbians for over 20 years.

Roe Sauerzopf, left, and Paula Acuti, right, have been together for 45 years. They have been members of Catholic Lesbians for over 20 years.

Courtesy of Roe Sauerzopf

They soon became involved in the parish’s Catholic Lesbian group, which was founded in 1995, and now has more than 300 participating members.

Pastor Kenneth Boller, who leads the LGBTQ+ friendly groups at the church, said the parish has been welcoming of all people for “many, many years.”

“It’s important for everybody to find groups of people who are ‘like’ instead of ‘other.’ So you can develop friendships, you can share experiences,” Boller said. “What’s important is that people find a place to pray.”

The Catholic Lesbians group meets monthly to pray together and share their own faith experiences. With a wide range of ages, the youngest member is 18 years old and the oldest members are in their 80s.

Acuti and Sauerzopf, who have been together for 45 years, got married at St. Francis Xavier in 2004, when same-sex marriage was still illegal in the United States.

Sauerzopf said the ceremony was for their 25th anniversary, and the priest at the time told them to invite their family and friends.

“He did a whole Mass, he blessed our rings, he just couldn’t sign the papers.”

PHOTO: The Catholic Lesbians group takes part in Pride mass every year before marching in the New York City parade.

The Catholic Lesbians group takes part in Pride mass every year before marching in the New York City parade.

Catholic Lesbians

It was a day the couple said they’d never forget. Wanting other same-sex couples to feel the acceptance they had received, they helped plan a surprise ceremony at a recent Catholic Lesbian retreat for a newlywed couple who joined the group during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“They’re just the most welcoming group we found,” McKenna Coyle, who is in her 20s, said, describing the group as “family.”

It was the last day of the retreat when Coyle and her wife, who were celebrating their one-year anniversary, walked into a room with music playing, a cake and photos from their wedding day displayed.

“They blessed us to celebrate our wedding since we can’t get married in the Catholic Church,” Coyle said.

“It’s a blessing on persons because everyone, every person, is entitled to be blessed. It’s not a blessing or endorsement of their living situation, but a realization that these are people of goodwill,” Boller said, in describing the Vatican policy change.

“The Pope says all are welcome. But then he kind of backtracks a little,” Sauerzopf said. “But this church doesn’t do the backtrack. They keep it up.”

PHOTO: McKenna Coyle, left, and Larissa Santiago Coyle, right, celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary at the Catholic Lesbians retreat. The group surprised the couple with music, cake, and a blessing.

McKenna Coyle, left, and Larissa Santiago Coyle, right, celebrate their one-year wedding anniversary at the Catholic Lesbians retreat. The group surprised the couple with music, cake, and a blessing.

Courtesy of Roe Sauerzopf

In addition to advocating for equality within the Catholic Church, Sauerzopf also said she would like to see more women in leadership roles within the church. The Church of St. Francis Xavier allows women to perform the homily during Mass, Sauerzopf said, which is rare within the Catholic religion.

“We shouldn’t be the oasis. We should be what it’s all like,” she said, while sitting in a church pew.



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