Higher Power

The Fired Lesbian Teacher Fighting Back Against the Catholic Church

Margie Winters was fired from her Catholic elementary school after it emerged she had married her female partner. Now she’s taking on the church hierarchy, with the support of many parents.

08.06.15 5:00 AM ET

Until recently, Margie Winters was a devoted teacher at the Waldron Mercy Academy, a Roman Catholic elementary school in Philadelphia where she had served as director of Religious Education for eight years.

Winters was hired at Waldron Mercy in August 2007, three months after she married her longtime partner, Andrea Vettori.

Same-sex marriage is forbidden under the official teachings of the Church, so Winters was transparent with Waldron Principal Nell Stetser's predecessor about her marriage during the hiring process.

Winters says Stetser encouraged her to be open with the faculty and staff, but warned her to be careful before disclosing her relationship to parents, some of whom were more conservative than others.

“It was not a directive,” Winters, now 50, tells me of her choice to keep her personal life private at Waldron.

“In 2007, there was still a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude towards the LGBTQ community in the larger world and in the church.”

For nearly a decade at Waldron, Winters’s marriage never interfered with her commitment to teaching and serving as a member of the greater Catholic community.

It remained that way until this June, when Winters ran afoul of a religiously conservative parent at Waldron who was miffed after Winters rejected her proposal for a new sex-ed curriculum.

According to Winters, the parent confronted Principal Stetser and later a call was made to the diocese from an anonymous source.

“This parent was very upset with the school for having someone like me in a position to review the sexuality program,” Winters tells me. “She was opposed to my being in charge of teachers, in charge of curriculum, and involved in the religious formation of young children because of my marriage.”

After the letter reached the Archdiocese’s office in Philadelphia, Winters says, Waldron had little choice but to let her go. (She was given the option to resign, with the condition that she wouldn’t speak publicly about her departure. The school did not return requests for comment.) “If they refused to fire me, it would have jeopardized the school’s Catholic identity.”

In the two months since Winters was fired from Waldron on June 22, her ouster has become a lightning rod for the Catholic Church’s discrimination against LGBTQ members, with Winters emerging as an activist hero. 

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“It’s a huge honor and a big responsibility,” she tells me, sitting sideways on the couch in khaki shorts and a sleeveless button-up shirt.

We are sitting in Winters and Vettori’s modest, tchotchke-filled home in suburban Glenside, Pennsylvania, outside of Philadelphia. Sunflowers tower over a white picket fence that runs along the periphery of the yard.

“It’s very humbling because it’s not like either Andrea or I sought this out in the past,” she adds of her suddenly-conferred hero status. “It began with a decision not to resign because I didn’t think it was right, and I think people see that as a stand. It has become a stand against the church at this point and it’s become a stand for the rights of LGBT folks.”

Ever since Winters was let go, parents and students at Waldron have rallied around her, devastated by her forced departure and determined to support her in any way they can.

When we meet, it’s easy to see why: Winters is warm and engaging, empathetic and even-tempered, with a gentle sense of humor and a patient attitude toward problem-solving. In short, she is the ideal elementary school teacher.

She doesn’t belabor her conflict with the parent who called for her to be fired, nor does she harbor any resentment.

Instead, she rhapsodizes about her experience at Waldron, recalling how she was sold on the school when she visited eight years ago and saw children skipping down the hallway.

“It’s such a joyful place!” she enthuses. “It’s an amazing group of people who aren’t just committed to the faith, because we have non-Catholic families, but who are committed to the work of justice and peace and helping those who are less fortunate than they are.”

She is equally effusive about the people who have stood behind her and encouraged her to speak out, particularly the group of parents at Waldron who spearheaded the #StandWithMargie movement that took off on social media in early July.

They created a “Stand With Margie” Facebook page that has garnered 11,000 supporters, connected Winters and Vettori with a public relations representative, and started a GoFundMe account with a $25,000 goal. (The account has raised $17,450 as of August 5.)

“We didn’t know the first thing about any of this stuff!” Winters says, laughing and looking at Vettori, who has been sitting quietly across from us. She takes Winters’s cue and jokes that they’ve had a “crash course in social media.”

Vettori, also 50, is less restrained than Winters, and her edge plays nicely off of Winters’s softness. She occasionally slips sassy remarks into our conversation, prompting Winters to cover for her. The two frequently finish each other’s sentences.

Winters and Vettori were both raised in Catholic families in Pennsylvania (Winters in Philadelphia; Vettori in Bristol Township).

Winters was studying at Gwynedd Mercy University when she had her first relationship with a woman and began to understand that she was a lesbian.

“It was a quiet piece of my identity,” she says, explaining that she was more focused on determining her identity in the Church and whether she was called to religious life.

It wasn’t until she fell in love with Vettori that she was really forced to confront that “quiet piece” of herself.

The two were in their early 30s when they met while studying with the Sisters of Mercy in Philadelphia, a community of women in the Catholic Church that welcomes Church members to live with them as they discern whether they are called to a religious life—one of celibacy and devotion to serving God’s people—or the life of a layperson.

Winters and Vettori were both still in the discernment process when they became friends, then quickly realized there was something more between them.

But falling in love didn’t lead them to make impulsive decisions as it often does for the rest of us. And neither Winters nor Vettori felt they had to hide their feelings from the Sisters.

“The Sisters were very open-minded, very progressive,” says Vettori. “Their hope was that we would obviously take vows and be Sisters for life with the community, but they enter into that process knowing that we might walk away at any time.”

“And we knew that they could encourage us to leave,” Winters adds. “Part of the process is coming to a mutual discernment with the community. And the Sisters feel it’s part of their mission to help form young women.”

Vettori dated men in her 20s despite her discomfort with it, which she attributed to her pursuit of a religious vocation: She was so passionate about the Church that she didn’t have the emotional energy for relationships. She had some “inklings” that she was attracted to women but never acted on them, even after she came out to her parents and briefly left the Church.

Her father was supportive of her when she came out, but her mother was “uncomfortable with the whole gay thing, with the idea of it,” Vettori says. Winters’s parents were both quietly supportive.

Everything changed for both women when they joined the Sisters of Mercy.

“The irony is that I didn’t know myself fully as a sexual person until I entered the community,” she says.

For some, this may evoke images of women sneaking into each other’s rooms in the middle of the night, breaking vows of celibacy and rebelling against the Church’s repression of sexuality.

But it was the opposite for Winters and Vettori.

The process of entering religious life with the Sisters of Mercy led them to develop not just a greater understanding of their relationship to God, but a greater understanding and acceptance of who they were.

Still, it would be a long time before they got together. Six months after their friendship was no longer platonic, Vettori moved to St. Louis to enter the novitiate (a part of the process of religious formation). They both felt they had to go through the discernment process separately before they could consider committing to each other.

Margie vividly remembers the moment when she knew her discernment process was over.

“I was leading the community in song—‘Lord is my light and my salvation whom shall I fear’—and looking out at them when this sense of freedom came to me,” she recalls, her voice suddenly thick with emotion. “For me, receiving the freedom from them to just be who I am was the last piece.”

But with that freedom came tremendous loss.

“These were women that I grew up with in the Church. I really felt called to follow their path and then suddenly I decided it wasn’t the path for me.”

Both Winters and Vettori have kept in touch with the Sisters of Mercy, in part because the Sisters have left their door open to laypeople in the Church. In doing so they’ve demonstrated how progressive they have become.

The generation before Winters and Vettori wouldn’t have maintained any relationship with the Sisters after choosing the path of a layperson. They would have been shepherded “out the back door in the middle of the night, the whole thing shrouded in secrecy,” says Vettori.

Now, Winters is once again mourning a loss, though this time the door has been closed indefinitely.

“It feels like a death,” she says. “I felt like I was doing ministry really well at Waldron. That was the direction my life had taken and where I had grown professionally and hoped to continue to grow. So to have that stopped dead is a huge loss.”

Winters’s departure from Waldron could have easily been a non-issue.

“I could have resigned and gotten whatever benefits came with that, but that would have implied that the teachings around same-sex marriage in the Church are right, and I really don’t think they are informed by people like Andrea and I who are in committed, loving relationships while serving the Church.”

Winters could give up now, too, knowing that she likely won’t be able to teach in the Church again unless the Church changes its attitude toward same-sex marriage.

Even if she moved to another state with a less conservative archbishop, he could be replaced by someone else at any given time.

“When this first happened a lot of parents encouraged us to go after the archbishop [of Philadelphia],” says Vettori. “Even if we persuaded him to change his mind, we could have a different archbishop next month. And then we’d be back at square one. It’s the thinking and the policies of the Church that really need to change.”

New Ways Ministry, a Catholic organization that advocates for reconciliation between the LGBTQ community and the official Church teachings, has compiled a list of people who have been affected—many of them fired from their jobs—because of the Church’s policies against same-sex relationships. Winters is the 53rd person on that list.

“The Church is losing good people,” she says. “I’ve been in Catholic education for 18 years and I’m committed to it. But they’ve fired us and lost people who are committed to teaching children in the faith because of who we are—because of who God made us to be. That’s the rub.

“Now it feels like a call to be a voice,” Winters adds, “and I think our voices are strongest in the realm of the Church because that’s our world and that’s what we can really speak to with knowledge and experience.”

They both worry about Catholic children who are struggling with their own sexual identity in school, and the message Winters’s firing sends them.

“It tells them they’re not worthy to teach in a Catholic school because of who they are,” says Vettori. “That they’re less than a full person in the Church and therefore less in the eyes of God. That’s the real horror in all of this.

“We’re standing on the shoulders of people who really had to stay in the closet, and because of them we got to live our lives. Up until now.”

Winters is now working with various organizations advocating for change within the Church: Dignity USA, a group that advocates for the rights of LGBTQ members in the Church, and the progressive organization Call to Action have both reached out to her.

This week, Winters and dozens of her supporters arrived at the archbishop’s office in Center City with a petition signed by more than 22,000 people calling for “a moratorium on the firing of LGBT employees.”

The petition was orchestrated by Faithful America, a Christian social justice organization, and calls for the archbishop to “ask Catholic schools before he gets involved with the hiring or firing of staff, in particular their gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual staff.”

Winters and Vettori are also considering starting their own foundation which would advocate full acceptance of the LGBTQ community within the Church community.

Winters’s plight is all the more striking given the recent major strides for gay rights in America, culminating in the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality. LGBTQ Catholics have faith in Pope Francis, who has proven to be liberal and politically progressive since he took over the Vatican.

Winters and Vettori are looking forward to the pope’s U.S. visit in September, and they hope to convince him to enact a moratorium on discriminatory firings.

“There are different ways that people form their personal theology, but it’s often either theologically formed or it’s experiential. And he’s experience. He meets people and he allows them to inform what he’s learned about theology,” says Vettori. “We know that if he met us and got to know us, I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t influence his theology.”

“That’s why a lot of what we’re saying is, Give us a place at your table,” Winters adds. “Talk to us. Meet us. Understand us. And let that inform your teaching.”

Vettori jokes about her and Winters becoming “pope groupies,” following him around during his U.S. visit and holding “Stand with Margie” signs.

They both crack up as Vettori waves an arm in the air theatrically, “I’m with Margie! I’m standing next to Margie!”

“We don’t expect earth-shattering news,” Vettori says, still grinning. “But you never know.”