In the pews for the 9 a.m. Mass at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Northwest yesterday were dozens of visiting worshipers wearing armbands of lavender, a color of the gay-rights movement. After Mass, lavender ribbons were tied to the step railings outside, and buttons of gay support reading "Bigotry Is Sinful" appeared on the coats of many of those leaving.
But there were no incidents during or after the service as gay Catholics and their supporters came to St. Mary's in a silent demonstration born of an altercation at that very same Mass on Christmas morning.
Then, a member of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT-UP, alleged that he was beaten by four parishioners during the service as he and six friends protested a recent decision by St. Mary's to discontinue workshops there for AIDS patients.
The point yesterday was "that God's home is open to all people and no one can exclude anybody, and also that there's no place in the church for hate and violence," said Bernie Delia, president of Dignity/Washington, an alliance of gay Catholics that organized the protest.
Delia said "the core of the problem" was some of the regular participants at the 9 a.m. Mass, the only one in the Washington area offered in Latin and according to older church rites. This group, Delia said, objected to the AIDS workshops, which were conducted in the church basement by Damien Ministries, a Catholic order that works with AIDS patients.
The workshops have been moved to St. Stephen-Martyr Church at 25th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Delia said, and the protest was not intended to win their return to St. Mary's. Instead, the goal was to "address the great prejudice and bigotry," he said.
"In the end, God is love, and it's not a loving thing to not allow people to meet in your church who are in need of spiritual help," said Monika Ruppert, Dignity's local treasurer.
Organizers estimated that 100 supporters attended the service at the church at 727 Fifth St. NW. The Rev. Aldo Petrini, pastor of St. Mary's, said there were 50 to 60, adding there was "no problem at all" between the newcomers and the 300 regular churchgoers at 9 a.m.
"It was just the difference between night and day," Petrini said, referring to the Christmas incident.
Some of the regular congregants reportedly engaged in spirited discussions with the gay-rights activists after the Mass. One warned that the protesters "would go to hell if we persisted," Ruppert said. Also, several protesters said a church deacon did not help serve communion at the Mass because of what they interpreted as a reluctance to serve gay people.
However, Petrini said he had "checked that out, and the man really was sick." He said that most of the congregants "were pleased" with the service because "there were no disruptions."