Philip Maniscalco finally found a home in Catholicism. Now he hopes Richmond's other gay and otherwise disenfranchised faithful will follow. 

A Place at the Table

"I was crushed. I hated God. I felt God had personally rejected me — had let me come so far and then punished me."

The priest, 53-year-old Philip Maniscalco, is sitting on a folding chair in a storefront church on Grace Street, gazing upon the gauzy, white, sun-illumined curtains of his modest chapel and considering the past.

What the past has to show Maniscalco is that seen now, 30 years later and from inside the old room that is his new church, the day he was expelled from the Roman Catholic seminary in New Orleans for being gay was, it turns out, a good day. Despite the shock, the hurt and the shame, it was, perhaps, part of a plan; even an important and necessary part of the plan he believes finally unfolded Oct. 7, 1999, the day he became a Catholic — if not a Roman Catholic — priest after all.

"I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like," he muses. "Would I have been happy? My life could have been miserable. I could have lost my faith. But I feel now my time is right."

The word "Catholic" usually means "of the Roman Church." The word "catholic" means universal, general and all-inclusive. In one sense, Maniscalco's faith is neither; in another, it is both.

It is neither Roman nor universal in that he is one of only 101 deacons, priests, bishops and archbishops who oversee the 62 parishes of the American Catholic Church. This is not part of the Roman Catholic Church, but an extended branch of the group of Catholics in northern Europe who, after a long period of disagreement, formally broke with the Roman Church in 1870 after Vatican I.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, this group became known as Old Catholics because they opposed several then-new developments in the Roman Church, particularly the greatly enhanced authority of popes and the declaration that Mary, the mother of Jesus, had also been born free of sin. For its part, the Roman Church regarded the Old Catholics as a sect whose faith was not in question, but whose motives and morals were.

"There's a lot of sordid history in the Old Catholic Church," says American Catholic Church Archbishop Bruce Simpson of Lanham, Md., one of its three most-senior officials. "Some of the early idiots" of the sect were spiritual opportunists, expropriating Catholic and Orthodox themes; others were involved in "tacky" sexual scandals; but those did not invalidate the sect's opposition to Rome, he adds.

Archbishop Simpson traces the lineage of the American Catholic Church to Old Catholics in Holland; it arrived in the United States in Philadelphia in 1787, and now is based in New York state. The American Catholic Church is the largest and oldest Old Catholic branch in the United States, Archbishop Simpson says, but he declined to estimate its total membership, pending a census to determine the exact number.

While American Catholics may appear to share little with Roman Catholics beyond the Old Catholic connection, Archbishop Simpson, like Maniscalco a former Roman Catholic, says the important differences, though significant, are few. "We have the same ecclesiastical structure, except we top out at archbishop," rather than pope, whom the American Catholic Church regards as "the bishop of Rome, an honored bishop among bishops," but not more than that. Archbishop Simpson also notes that he and his fellow American Catholic bishops and archbishops can trace their lines of succession back to the 400s.

The church also follows most Roman Catholic doctrine in the bestowal of sacraments and the celebration of Mass, he says. In fact, in Maniscalco's church, called the Gentle Shepherd Parish of the American Catholic Church, hand-me-down Roman Catholic prayer books and hymnals are neatly arranged on alternating seats in the narrow rows of the chapel.

The church's first Sunday service in its new space at 518 W. Grace St. was held Feb. 6, and Archbishop Simpson will be present Feb. 20 to dedicate and bless it. "There's no dancing around the altar with New Age crystals naked," he jokes, inviting Richmonders to attend.

Structurally the churches are similar, but in pastoral details they are anything but, Archbishop Simpson says. Members of both the laity and clergy may be male or female; openly and actively heterosexual or homosexual; single, married or divorced; pro-choice or pro-life; and so on. The church in fact was founded to serve "those who have been hurt, rejected by other churches and thrown out."

"We'll turn no one away," he says. "God knows, there are a lot of people out there who have been hurt by church dogma, and not just Roman."

"We don't have a lot of knowledge of them," says Father Pat Apuzzo, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, which does not have a formal position on the American Catholic Church generally or the Gentle Shepherd Parish particularly.

"They seem to be a group that centers a lot of their identity on how they worship," Father Apuzzo offers. "That seems to be what holds them together, and it appears they are liturgically conservative, whereas it appears that anything goes [regarding] personal morals or church morals."

Father Maniscalco says it is that combination — the American Catholic Church's adoption of the Roman Catholic liturgy with what he calls its own "open and accepting" practices — that instantly thrilled and attracted him when he learned of it last summer.

His sense of homecoming was a long time in the making.

Philip Michael Maniscalco grew up as a Roman Catholic in Baton Rouge, La. "I loved going to church, and I loved serving at Mass as an altar boy," he recalls. "I got a lot of pleasure from it, a lot of joy." He attended Catholic school, yet by the time he was a teen-ager and essentially had decided that he wanted to be a priest, he found that "it wasn't encouraged, either by my family or anyone else."

It wasn't that his family thought the vocation was unworthy, but that his parents saw a life of "drudgery and isolation" ahead for their son. They and many others also had been dismayed by changes, particularly in the celebration of Mass, as a result of Vatican II in the early 1960s. "There were a lot of changes in the church that people didn't understand. It appeared to happen overnight. ... I no longer [felt] comfortable in my own church."

After investigating Episcopal, Lutheran and other churches, however, Maniscalco resolved to remain a Catholic. He entered a Benedictine seminary in Louisiana after high school and spent two years there, an experience he describes as "wonderful - you got to pray all day," then transferred to Notre Dame Seminary, a Roman Catholic institution in New Orleans, which he also recalls fondly.

Maniscalco says he was an average student academically at Notre Dame but above average when it came to people-focused skills, such as saying Mass, delivering homilies, and helping the poor. "I like people. I like being with people and I've always found great comfort in prayer," he says.

His sociability, however, also led some to infer his homosexuality, and one morning, he arrived at the seminary to find he was no longer welcome: "I was just told I was not going to be studying for the diocese, and I was dismissed." Years later, Maniscalco says, he learned from a friend in the priesthood that one of his fellow Benedictine seminarians had been distressed seeing him dance with another student during a party and ultimately had written to a bishop about it.

"We all danced together. There were no women in the sanctuary," he recalls, and the dancing itself was not only common practice but "innocent, disco-type dancing — not like dirty dancing. Nothing close."

For six months he didn't tell his parents he had been expelled from the seminary. It would be 10 years before he could bring himself to explain why.

"I was a gay man who went to church."

Philip Maniscalco arrived in Richmond three years ago, a designer with experience ranging from department store displays to corporate interiors. He had worked throughout the Southeast ,and after nearly 30 years, he had the contacts and expertise to go independent. Richmond seemed like a nice place to settle.

He appreciated that there was at least one church in the city that openly welcomed gay and lesbian members, Metropolitan Community Church on Park Avenue in the Fan. (Maniscalco says he had met the founder of the Metropolitan movement in New Orleans many years before, and that the encounter was key in keeping his faith.) He read scripture during MCC services and helped serve communion as a Eucharistic minister. But his neighborhood church was the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, and its Roman Catholic liturgy had, after all the years, remained his real longing. He began attending more often, and by early last year he was doing so regularly.

"I had felt wanted but not completely fulfilled" at Metropolitan Community Church, which offers a more free-form, Protestant-leaning service, he says. "And then when I felt satisfied within the walls of the cathedral, I felt I wasn't wanted." There seemed to be no middle ground, no true home for him anywhere, and certainly he held out no lingering hope for the priesthood.

Then late last spring he saw an article Simpson had written for a national gay publication. In it he learned of the Old Catholic faith and its American branch, and how it combined conservative theology with liberal practices. Maniscalco and six friends here contacted Archbishop Simpson; but after convincing him of their seriousness and ability to found a local church, he had one final question.

Who would be the gentle shepherd of Gentle Shepherd Parish?

Tom Gallub, one of the seven founding members (now there are about two dozen regular parishioners), says it was a no-brainer. Philip Maniscalco became a deacon on Aug. 14. On Oct. 7, he was ordained to the priesthood. "That's pretty fast, even for us," Archbishop Simpson says with a laugh. "My general rule is six to 12 months." But the new parish's need and Maniscalco's ability accelerated the process — and have continued to do so.

On New Year's Day, Father Maniscalco became Monsignor Maniscalco, a title that Archbishop Simpson says he earned after he finished writing the American Catholic Church's new catechism, a document summarizing the principles of the church and answering common questions about its beliefs and practices.

"All I want to do is help you find Christ," Maniscalco says. "If we can help you do that, God be

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